Before her there was only Peggy Hopkins Joyce. After her came all of cable TV. And today she has merged with politics -- they can never more extricated. And thus our first lady is a Communist 'handler' for a mole Raymond Shawhshank sleeper agent blah blah, but who cares? She looks marvelous, darling. That bitch can wear a dress. Has a first lady ever been this glam?
In such an age as this, can we really afford to forget about Zsa Zsa Gabor?
Barely two years dead, seldom seen outside a scarce handful of cult movies (and a few forgettable 'good ones' like We're Not Married) it's easy to forget that her unique brand of 'empty' celebrity was once unique in pop culture. We forget her at our own risk: she's the preface chapter to all of trash TV today. But she was not trashy. Along with her sisters and mother, she was Hungarian and a socialite and she got rich divorcing rich old men husbands and got famous for being famous without having anything to be famous about, which has been such a constant for so long now it's not even a novelty.
And yet, there's no one remotely like her today because she had that high-toned class that usually was seen in society pages rather than heard on game shows. She came from a time when TV was campier but less shrill, with relatively little of our current reality show 'loudest voice wins' 'diamonds-that-shine-like-rhinestone' ugliness. Instead, the blurriness of analog color TV signal and the Vaseline on the lens catching her every diamond sparkle, Zsa Zsa drifted along the talk show airwaves like a fabulous pillow feather caught in a cold Nordic draft. Witty enough to be engaging, beautiful enough to be beguiling, but nothing else, we jokingly imagined her as the harbinger of the TV future, the equivalent of what the food industry calls vanishing caloric density, her melt-in-your-mouth hungry ghost illusion left us with nothing, not even the illusion of fullness - only the vague epiphany that fullness itself was an illusion. She knew to play herself dead-on straight, like she didn't get the joke; she was able to be that paragon of social high-toned class that Joan Rivers, in her acres of furs, was a sly riff on. But Zsa Zsa knew she was playing a 'type' as stereoed-in as Charles Nelson Riley or Rip Taylor, yet it worked because she pretended she didn't know it. We were left to fathom what percentage of her schtick was pretense, and it's that which made her interesting. We could keep it up as long as she could. The epitome of composed class and elegance: gowns and lashes for the ladies and gays; impressive cleavage for the straight boys, she was the sort of lady you bring to Vegas on your arm and know she won't embarrass you by getting hammered and pestering you to go upstairs, and if she has any 'needs', she'll make sure they're met, in austere Eastern European style (via some dashing parking attendant from Brazil who conveniently speaks no English). Her vanity and insecurity over her leggy competition might drive you to a nervous breakdown (as it did to the director of the film we're discussing today) but you don't have to worry about her mental health: you could bounce a truck off her old world European composure and worry only about the truck.
Television today has set the bar for glamor is so low it's down in the sub-basement. Reality stars sip Napoleon brandy mixed with Mountain Dew and end up splashing it on each other to signify a fight that will keep us watching past the next add for butt augmentation --but that's inevitable. That's science. Smart folk feel superior to so many people we never realize that it might have a value, that uneducated, ignorant slobs might, deep down, realize it and be desperate to look down on someone, anyone. It's annoying being surrounded by idiots but maybe it's worse being an idiot surrounded by smart people. Luckily a Honey Boo-Boo can make even an idiot know what it is to feel smarter than someone else, and that--in the end--it doesn't make anything better. It's just depressing. Happy now?
Problem is, those shows about dumb yokels are made by smart people, and the contempt they feel for their subjects is hard to hide. Brainy Harvard snob writers eventually start to show their contempt too broadly, like the smirky New York intellectual Walter Matthau in 1957's A Face in the Crowd (left), writing the corn pone slop around Lonesome Rhodes' show like he's doing anyone a favor when in reality his cynicism is what's dragging the world down around his ears. Watching that movie you start to think yeah, Lonesome Rhodes is a monster, but you don't want to punch him in the face as bad as you want to punch Matthau. The type of character, so common in the late 50s-early 60s, that thinks a pipe, white skin, glasses, a suit, college education entitles gives them dominion over women, children, the 'working class' and dogs, they don't respect the savvy craftiness of street smart 'hicks' or the intuitive 'soft touch' of women. They presume their lascivious attention is always welcome, and that their father can help get them any job they want, since their father plays golf with the boss of the boss. These privileged 'wits' end up enforcing a white male intelligence on their subjects, who naturally suffer in strait-jackets of passive aggressive 'dumbing down' dialogue, the sort that used to be so common it was a kind of invisible normal that might make you slowly go insane but you were never sure why.
It's cuzz city slicker douchebags with them pipes keeping us thinking each other is super dumb by writing our thoughts for us on TV, is why! Fight the real enemy.
|Slap the pipe out!|
(from top: Matthau, A Face in the Crowd; Anthony Eisley, Wasp Woman
|This is CinemaScope|
|(from top) the heavenly beatnik jazz dancer troupe of CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON; the celestial moon goddesses of MISSILE TO THE MOON; the tired front line of broads from QUEEN|
The plot you know even if you don't: a shipload of smirking virile Earthmen head to a planet of all women where they help the good leader (Zsa Zsa) overthrow the bad one (Laurie Mitchell [who played a similar role in Missile to the Moon] who hides her deformed looks behind an even uglier mask.) Va-Voom! Lots of girls in terrible MGM costume drama hand-me-downs getting freaky, guys makin' moves, and the captain tackling the biggest lay of his life.
Sounds like I'd love this film if it let me. But it loves its smirky self too much to let me in. Some of the girls are great (like Lisa Davis (right; below left) who rocks great lipstick and smoldering Gillian Anderson eyes) and the writing seems a decent framework for a more straight-faced mature approach (which would allow the magic of camp to cohere better). The problem is in the misogynistic direction and frat boy acting by the men, that pipe puffing smug-snark where actors and director think themselves too smart for their material. They think adding some bawdy audience winking will help put it over, which shows how wrong they are. The smirky douche bag vibe of male superiority has doomed the film to never be a true cult favorite except in the most perfunctory of ways.
What makes the 'good' bad versions of this same plot (Cat Women of the Moon in particular) work so well as enduring 'camp' classics on the other hand, is the intent to do something straight and good but without the know-how or budget or the talent. With these films we get the genuine eccentricity of lower rung Hollywood really trying to make nothing into something.
Unknowns and outsider artists mix with actors shunned or forgotten by the Hollywood elite, out of touch and truly erratic due to drug and alcohol issues, left behind by changing times, bad luck, 'lifestyle choices' etc. They all take this last chance grab and nobly fight to stay in character as the set collapses around them. These oddballs and has-beens are--to we classic horror / sci-fi fans--our family - they're the equivalent of the Bad News Bears, or the bar full of flea-bitten drunks in The Iceman Cometh, they're waiting us for us to come watch them again with Hicky eyes anew, to buy them drinks so they can live again through the alcohol that is our eyes. They get that it's all over in under 90 minutes, win or lose. Only the drunks survive, because thirst never dies.
Maybe this is why (white male) barflies and has-beens tend to have more respect for women and minorities, since the men in these Z-grade films are as disenfranchised and thus less afraid they'll lose anything by portraying women as the badass goddesses they are. I know for myself, alcoholism humbled me down to the roots, made me forever grateful and in awe of the women who rescued me. And that's why we drunks, drag queens, punks, and other outsiders that make up the bad film-lover community aren't going to be drawn to such puerile contempt for either women or their beloved genres. And thus no character in Plan Nine leers at Vampira and says some inane shit like "my coffin or yours, baby." No one in that cantina says to Tarantella in Mesa of Lost Women, "I bet you got a real sticky web." If there were such inane catcalling, these films would be as ignobly remembered as this Queen. It's the celebration, the worship, of female strength, that makes them endure. It's there in John Waters, it's there in Russ Meyer, it's there in Roger Corman. It's not there in Queen of Outer Space.
|The 'space women need men' subgenre always has a giant spider - Analyze its symbolic meaning, right down your answer,|
then look at the oeuvre of artist Louise Bourgeois to see if you're right!
No matter what happens, she plays it dead straight. She should have been the evil queen- as the title and billing suggests, with her beauty being the mask and the ugly scarred face appearing after the face cracks off because she's too busy making out with the captain to moisturize. Instead, as the chief scientist and leader of the resistance, she brings that same feathery class to bear she'd bring to any 'real' social event only here it looks like the event happened five years ago and no janitor has stirred therein to sweep up. And the event was an afternoon ladies-only coffee clatch fashion show with a vague Robin Hood theme. If you're old enough maybe your grandmother dragged you to one or two of these coffee fashion shows as a bored child and you barely remember - only now that I hold this medallion in front of your eyes does it come back, like the Vegas casino 'floor' in Damnation Alley, only bigger.
|Grandma, what uneven eyeholes you got|
Well, either way - if we don't like it- we have two others just like it for solace, each worse than the other and far better in their worseness as a result. Times change - we've been to the moon. We know there's no babes there. Or if there are, they're fast aslep (or as Rutledge says "condition - not dead, not alive"). Alien women are here, instead, and their masks are human. Sometimes I pass one on the street - they have deep light blue dazzling eyes and blonde hair, impossibly elfin. And I send them a telepathic message. They don't answer me. But that's show business. I'm not out to topple any kingdom, certainly not a matriarchy, even if it's run by a puppet doofus via his hot Russian handler. Pass me my pipe and let's get the show started, and then cancelled!
|Greetings from the Bilderberg Jamboree|
CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON (1953)
MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1953)
FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)
PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)
Acidemic #8 The Brecht / Godard / Wood issue