Thursday, February 24, 2005

Brush with greatness

A reader wrote me privately after this photo was posted here yesterday:

There are times when I think that the entirety of the Goldwyn *oeuvre* is justified by that one scene where La Stanwyck teaches Gary Cooper about 'Yum-yum.' Were you there in a professional capacity, or was this an accidental juxtaposition? All details are of interest. Including the information of whether she was actually that shade of ghostly white, or it was the effect of odd lighting.

Thank you,


This was taken in 1981 at Chez Merv---the Beverly Hilton. The occasion was the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards dinner. This was the one year that the group went big time; thus, the tux I am wearing (I had to roll pennies to pay for the rental of the damn thing). The evening was broadcast on syndicated TV. The entertainment for the affair was fairly hip. I seem to recall, it was the Dwight Twilley band. Or maybe, it was Dwight Yoakum. Either way. . .hip! (Since then, BTW, time has kicked the shit out of my face.)

A one-time LACMA moment of madness, the event has since gone back to the scale of a glorified PTA meeting. I am not a member of the group, but my good friend and constant traveling companion of the past thirty-odd years, David Ehrenstein, was. . .and still is.

I went because I knew Stanwyck was going to be there to receive their Career Achievement award. It is the only time I have accompanied David to the event. This night may have been the one that set off the belated spate of such recognition for her. I have no favorite movie stars, per se. For me, there is only Stanwyck. And I wanted to see her, not talk to her, just be in proximity to her. In the same spirit that I bought a ticket a few years earlier to witness Groucho at Carnegie Hall. In the presence of greatness. . . and all that.

I was seated right behind her at the next table, with none other than Miss Joan Collins who fussed and fretted over her maquillage the entire evening. . .actually going so far as whip out a makeup mirror at one point. At which point David turned and whispered to me, "This is a religious experinece." She was set to appear on the TV portion of the show. "Religious" perhaps, but a truly shocking and vulgar display nonetheless.

On the other hand (the answer to the above "ghostly" question), Stanwyck had no need to revert to such vulgar shenanigans. For she had used one of the oldest makeup tricks in the book, i.e. slathered herself with rice powder. The effect being that, the more light that is shone on a person wearing it, the younger they appear to be. So that by the time Stanwyck appeared under the hot TV lights to accept her award, she looked youthful enough to bring off the Ball of Fire "Sugarpuss O'Shea" character that you allude to in your query, Chris. Weellll, almost.

The photo was taken by Glenda Hobbs, wife of film critic Michael Sragow, who knew how much I venerated Stanwyck. At first, I stood way off in the distance out of respect for my heroine. But Glenda kept motioning me closer and closer, and if I had got any nearer, I would have tripped and fallen face forward in Barbara's boullabaisse.

At first, I made no attempt to approach Stanwyck. But when the evening was almost over, I espied my friend Kevin Thomas talking with her, and as he moved away and began moving up the aisle, I ran and affected a full body tackle. "Kevin, pleasssse," I implored. He then graciously escorted me over to her table and introduced me. "Bill, Barbara. . . Barbara, Bill, etc." I hadn't really planned on this contingency , so I didn't have any conversation gambit at the ready. But then. . .inspiration struck:

"You're on the cover of a book I wrote."

In the nicest possible way, and in the lowest possible plangent tones for a female of the species, she replied something along the lines of, "What ever on earth are you talking about?"

"Uh, um . . . [I was beginning to feel just like Margaret O'Brien when she knocks on that door on Halloween in "Meet Me in St. Louis"]. . . I wrote this book about rock and roll movies , and you were in one with Elvis Presley, 'Roustabout', and there's a still from it on the cover, and well I didn't really write it, that is to say I co-wrote it with David Ehrenstein, he's a critic, and . . .."

"How interesting," she interrupted in a tone of voice just this side of disingenuous and then kind of turned away and continued scarfing back her vittles. Finally, I guess it was worth it, though. How many others can claim, like myself, to have shaken the hand of both Barbara Stanwyck AND Neal Cassady!

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