Monday, January 14, 2013
Birthday Girls: Stars Wavishing and Less So
Caught up in that little shopping frenzy yesterday, I missed a landmark birthday, that of longtime Café patroness and mascot, the magnificent Miss Kay Francis. We see her here at the height of her glory, superb in all the trappings of stardom in the Golden Age: turban, stole, plunging décolletage, and an expression both mocking and enigmatic.
She was a not a happy lady, nor, from all accounts, a particularly sensible one when it came to most aspects of her private life. Still, she accomplished one thing that in these intrusive, media-saturated days seems almost impossible: when she was done with it all, when it no longer seemed worth it to keep up the pretense of being Kay! Francis! - and for a woman in her fifties, whose reputation always rested as much on her glossy appearance as her (underestimated) talent, and one given to excesses that can be distressingly aging, that must have been a lot of work indeed - she simply disappeared.
Try and find a photograph of her in retirement; with the exception of a couple of blurry personal snaps in one of the biographies that came out a few years ago, they would seem simply not to exist. Not for Kay Francis the indignities of being trailed through the streets of Manhattan like Garbo or of being ambushed outside the doctor's office or worse that is the fate of too many stars today. Of course, her determination to disappear (one of those biographies uses one of her own quotes: I Can't Wait to be Forgotten) was made easier by the complete collapse of her career and, for far too long (and for long after her early death, in 1968, at 63 or so) of her reputation. It's only since TCM and other outlets have made more of her movies available to wider audiences that Francis's work has been restored to something like its proper place; like Marion Davies, she has benefited greatly from direct exposure to the actual films, which has allowed people to see for themselves that there is more to Kay Francis than overdressing and histrionics (although she certainly indulged in both).
Still, she resisted any and all temptations that came along and lived out her life entirely on her own terms, and when she died - alone, as apparently she wanted it - she died a rich woman who had if nothing else the satisfaction that she made her own decisions, however they turned out.
Today, by chance, is the birthday of another troubled, troubling Hollywood great, Miss Faye Dunaway. The two make an interesting contrast. Like Francis, Dunaway had a period of enormous success (it can be easy, now, to forget what a very topmost star she was for 15 years or so after her triumph in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967), followed by an ever greater period of near-total eclipse. Unlike Francis, though, Dunaway for a long time seemed unable to give up the illusion - which must, in truth, be enormously intoxicating - of Great Stardom. For years (turning into decades, since at least, with few exceptions, 1987 or so) she has appeared in almost nothing but trash, and great quantities of it - 16 films since 2005 alone, plus a couple of TV appearances. Few stars have had as direct and seemingly enthusiastic a hand in the trashing of their own fame as Dunaway - yes, Francis made a trio of films at Monogram, but Dunaway did a thriller of sorts distributed by Troma and (a phrase I regularly recycle, as it so precisely defines her parlous situation) has consented to appearing fourth-billed in a Bai Ling picture. It's a long way from Chinatown, Jake.
Lately, of course, she's been much taken by the idea of what looks to be a spectacularly misguided film version of Terrence McNally's Maria Callas stage hit Master Class. Callas was another one who walked away; perhaps Dunaway should look a little more into the example set by her and Kay Francis, if only for the sake of her own, now so tarnished, legacy.
In any case, Happy Birthday, wherever you are, Kay Francis, and many happy returns, Miss D. It may be cold comfort now, but as the years pass, you can at least know that your more dismal outings (Say it in Russian, anybody? Cougar Club?) will fade in the glow of Network and The Thomas Crown Affair, just we as now appreciate the glory of Kay in Trouble in Paradise and One Way Passage and don't pay all that much heed to Wife Wanted or Women in the Wind.
Steel yourself, though - there will never, ever be any piece of journalism on your life and work that doesn't mention (if it doesn't base itself around) Mommie Dearest. Maybe you should have considered a Kay Francis biopic instead...