Thursday, June 4, 2020

Gatsby and Me and Hollywood and the Heartbreak of the American Dream

Pity their untortured souls, for no magic comes from the satisfied.

From the get-go, I was the perfect food for the Hollywood hunger machine. And from my first reading of that slim miracle, I knew the meaning of that green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. I didn’t need an explanation because I felt it in my bones, the same way I instinctively felt the meaning of a Hurrell portrait of Jean Harlow or Doris Day’s twinkle.

Simply put: like so many adolescents, I did not want to be me. The wonderful thing about that green light is that we can all attach our private meaning to it, but it all boils down to the same thing: The hope and the lie of the American Dream. If you will it, it will come. If you work hard and commit yourself and believe, it will come. You are not bound by social class, ethnicity, name or the sins of the past. What a perfect message for 1925, the year of Gatsby’s publication. Everything seemed possible.

At the same time there was Hollywood, standing astride the world’s film industry that saw European markets devastated by World War I like a king. And what royalty they created! They had been working at it for years, but during the 1920s, they perfected the machine that produced glamour and dreams and fed off the dreams and desires it created in the hearts of the world.

Gloria Swanson, once a ribbon clerk, was now a real-life marhioness, or whatever you call someone married to a marquis. Did she ever scrape Chicago off of her shoes?  Did Clara Bow ever escape the Brooklyn girl who was uneducated and raped by her father just because she lived in a dream world and was adored by millions?

And, if your name didn’t fit the dream, you could change it, just as you could change your appearance or your back story. Name changing in the entertainment world wasn’t new. Mary Pickford ditched Gladys Smith before she ever stepped in front of a camera. In the early days of film, Theodosia Goodman of Cincinnati became Theda Bara, the daughter of an Arab Sheik and a French woman, raised in the shadow of the Pyramids.  That kind of malarkey was purely for fun and probably no one really bought it, but it made for a good vamping story that bought folks to the theater. However, somewhere in the 1920s, it all got very serious. After all, millions were at stake and more and more people started really believing make believe.  Did Greta Garbo ever miss Greta Gustafsson?   Was Mary Astor able to shed Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke? Did Rodolfo Pietro Filberto Raffaello Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella ever really feel like Rudolph Valentino?

It’s a beautiful dream, but it is a dream, a fantasy. And when you come to realize that, it is the ultimate heartbreak. That is why there is always a tender spot in my heart for Gatsby, for Clara and, later, for poor Norma Jean Baker. They believed and their hearts were pierced. As was mine, when I realized I could not become anyone other than myself. Yet the allure persists. It is powerful, this desire to alter the reality.

Daisy and Nick and Tom, those philistines, never had to long. They could graze in another pasture, sample the “other,” but they were secure in their beings. They did not long to be anyone other than themselves. Pity their untortured souls, for no magic comes from the satisfied.

The eternal truth of Gatsby smashes the lie of the American Dream, so well perpetuated by Hollywood – or what passes for a universal “Hollywood” these days. Jay Gatz could give himself a new name and fancy clothes and new wealth, but the truth was cloaked in the lie. Believing the lie is the mistake that leads to the heartbreak. Somehow, the truth always wins.

As a little girl I spent endless hours pouring through movie magazine and classic Hollywood photo books. My dreams were built on those images. Oh what magical lives Hayley Mills and Sally Field and Audrey Hepburn must have had!  I’m a big girl now and I have learned that who you are, at your core, is the only truth and your true identity. It’s fun to take flights of fancy and indulge in a little make believe, but the trick is to never believe it is real. Cary Grant famously said “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person.” Based on what we know, even the great Cary Grant spent endless hours trying to figure out the intersection where Archie Leach met Cary Grant.

And still, like so many, who continue to watch and watch and maybe hope and hope, I am spellbound by the magic of film, especially Hollywood films of old.
The green light at the end of the dock is no different than the thrill of the simultaneous darkening of the theater and the light of the projector and the hope, the excitement that we can enter a new world, if only for a short while. Unlike Gatsby, we don’t have to really believe it, unlike Marilyn we don’t have to run head first to the green light. A person could get burned if they linger there too long.


Martin Turnbull, the Garden of Allah novels said...

Personally, I don't know that I longed to be someone else, but I related to everything else you said. There was something those movies and those images and those people that drew me to them and my fascination with them never never dimmed.

Can I ask you about that first line: "Pity their untortured souls, for no magic comes from the satisfied." That's a great one! I googled it but came up empty-handed. Do you know where it came from? Or did you write it yourself?

FlickChick said...

Martin - thank you so much for your kind comments. Thank sentence is mine. You are such an amazing writer, it humbles me that you sought to Google it! After I wrote it yesterday I stopped. I said to myself "I wrote a sentence I am thoroughly satisfied with." That almost NEVER happens!

The Lady Eve said...

All true, all true. A lovely and heart-rending post, Marsha. Beautifully expressed.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Patty. I really leaned into this one.

Silver Screenings said...

No magic indeed comes from the satisfied - profound and poetic. It really struck a chord with me, as did your entire piece. Beautifully and lyrically said.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Ruth. Your opinion and kind words mean a lot.


I'm at a loss of words. It was all so beautiful and true and heartbreaking - because of the beauty and the truth. Congratulations.

FlickChick said...

Kisses to you, Le - and thank you so much for the kind words.

ClassicBecky said...

Two and a half years ago, I wrote an innocuous little paragraph that ended up being the last of my blog. I haven't written since. It was inevitable that I could no longer belong to the wonderful CMBA, which I had been part of since the beginning. I had thought I was a pretty good writer, but it all ended. What a falling off was there (and I didn't write that sentence!) I slipped away from dear friends that had meant so much to me. Chick, reading your article brought back so many feelings that I had to risk seeming pathetic to express to you what it meant to me. I miss writing about movies and the many facets of humor and tragedy that was Hollywood at its best. Most of all, I miss you and my other friends. Isn't it strange how much a little article can do?

FlickChick said...

Words have such enormous power, don't they? I have missed you terribly, but I surely know that when the inspiration isn't there, there is no joy in writing. But you never know when it will come knocking again. So wonderful of you to stop by. It means the world to me.

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