October 27, 2011 | by Liz Brown
An early foray into fandom: I was eleven, maybe twelve, full of lust and greed. After school let out that day, my mother picked me up to go grocery shopping at Gemco, the massive warehouse supermarket that had recently opened on the outskirts of our Sacramento Valley town. Inside, while she got a cart and started making her rounds, I hung back at the newsstand, in my Catholic school uniform, and tore photos of boy heartthrobs from glossy teen magazines and then stuffed them into the waistband of my blue plaid skirt.
I didn’t consider it stealing. I wasn’t taking the whole magazine, just a few pages. I didn’t even think about the fact that I was defacing property. Nor did I contemplate simply asking my mother to buy me the magazines. I wasn’t going to put these photos up on my bedroom wall; they would go inside my closet. This was the early eighties, so I would’ve been obsessed with The Outsiders—Ponyboy, Johnny, Soda, all the rest. Into my skirt went Rob Lowe. Into my skirt went C. Thomas Howell
“Silver Screen/Silver Prints: Hollywood Glamour Portraits from the Robert Dance Collection,” an exhibit at the Grolier club on East Sixtieth Street, takes a much more decorous approach to celebrity. The introductory wall text points out the link between religious and secular worship, and there is something hushed and chapel-like about the exhibition room with the brass-railed balcony and the high coffered ceiling and the quiet visitors. Mine was only the fourth name on the sign-in sheet at the Club, where the exhibit will run until November 12. Here is fandom as High Church veneration. Nothing unseemly, certainly no speaking in tongues.
(And certainly nothing like the explosive fervor that overtakes the young women in Peter Watkins’s 1967 film Privilege in which Paul Jones stars as tormented pop icon Steven Shorter. Here is fandom as ecstatic frenzy:)
In “Beginnings,” the first of ten glass wall displays, kohl-eyed Theda Bara scowls in the famous snake-bra. Dorothy Revier clutches her face like it’s a mask. These early portraits seem overly staged, as if you can feel the subjects holding their poses. That is, until you get to young Gloria Swanson, so natural in front of the camera that she doesn’t bother looking at the lens. She lounges in profile, one arm flung along the back of the divan, her lips parted, hair askew, light picking up glints in her dress.
The wall vitrines range from star (Ramón Novarro, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor) to photographer (Ruth Harriet Louise, Clarence Sinclair Bull) to theme (distribution, stars in fashion). A meandering evolution of celebrity portraiture emerges; the theatricality of the silent era shifts to gauzy pictorialism, which gives way to the stark, high-contrast shots by George Hurrell, who liked photographing eyelash shadows.
In one shot, Ramón Novarro is Ben-Hur up on the rigging. In the next, he glowers darkly, sword in hand. Now he stands with Greta Garbo, the two in profile, gazing serenely into the distance. “Manly and tender” says the wall text.
Manly and tender is not how I usually think of Lana Turner, but it’s how she comes across in the photo for Honky Tonk (1940). From this angle, it looks like she’s wearing a blond pompadour. She bends to kiss Clark Gable; she is the prince come to rouse the sleeping beauty. Is Gable smirking? All I know is he isn’t really trying, which is the least you could do for Lana.
The press release describes the portrait photographer’s task as “developing and refining an image that could be translated to the screen for public consumption,” and without having been a dedicated fan, I realize now how thoroughly, if unwittingly, I have consumed the image of Garbo. The studied languor, half-lidded eyes, thin, arching eyebrows—all feel so familiar.
But it is Joan Crawford (née Lucille Lusueur) who owns the room at the Grolier. I have the feeling that the whites of her eyes were always that prominent, that she was always hyperalert, full of ocular intensity, even when the camera wasn’t there. A vintage magazine describes her wearing Velveeta shoes, a wonderful vision I have to relinquish once I realize it’s Velvetta suede shoes.
In one photo, Joan holds a tennis racket, hair crimped tight around her head, beaming like a demented mother in a Tide commercial. Or maybe I’m thinking of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. A double exposure in the mind, the line between impersonator and impersonated now a blur.
A caption for a photo of Hedy Lamarr reads her “loveliness compensates for her inertia.” Was she inert? What I know about Hedy Lamarr: her nude swim in “Ecstasy” (1933) drove the censors crazy, she and composer George Antheil invented a kind of “frequency hopping” secret communication system, and, in her later years, she was caught, quite scandalously and more than once, shoplifting.
At the newsstand that day in Gemco, I worked steadily, tearing and folding, glancing around to make sure there were no customers. It was midafternoon, and the sun was strong, slanting through the plate glass windows. When I exhausted the magazines, I turned to find my mom, and instead found the security guard. I still couldn’t see him, only his outline against the sun’s glare. I know that he wasn’t very tall, that he had a big stomach and dark hair, and that he had been watching me the whole time.
There were no charges, though my livid mother was forced to pay for the tacky fan magazines. I was marched out of the store into the bright sun, shopping cart jolting. In the parking lot, fuming, she tried to tear the magazines in half, but they were too thick, and so in the end she had to just crumple them up and throw them away in a trash can.
After that, I didn’t steal photos from Tiger Beat any more, but I was still a fan. There was a store down by Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco where I bought a Clark Gable poster in high school—I hadn’t even seen him in a movie, but I knew he was more sophisticated than Rob Lowe, and I wanted to be someone who was sophisticated. There was the movie paraphernalia place next to the Key Theater in Washington, DC, where I bought a poster of The Graduate. That was college, when I didn’t know who I wanted more: Benjamin or Mrs. Robinson. (Mrs. Robinson, it turned out, but that’s another story.) Later, in New York, I went to Jerry Ohlinger’s on West Fourteenth Street. By then I wasn’t just a fan, I was a cinephile, buying stills of Douglas Sirk on the set of All That Heaven Allows. And later yet, eBay. The more inexplicable, the better:
But I’ve since forgotten my eBay login. Maybe I’m not the fan I used to be. After I left the Grolier, I stopped at the newsstand. On the cover of Harper’s Bazaar Stephanie Germanotta gazes half-lidded into the camera. “Lady Gaga Bares All.” Katy Perry, pink-haired, hand on hip, smiles for InStyle. Next to her, Reese Witherspoon tells Marie-Claire, “I Didn’t Realize How Stressed I Was Until I Got Married Again.” There are images I’d shove down my skirt if I could get away with it, but these aren’t the ones.
I’d start with Angela Dufresne’s paintings, which meld her own life with film life. They have titles like “Jen DiNike as Cybill Shepherd in the Skinny Dipping Scene from ‘The Last Picture Show’” or “My Mother as Maggie Liz Taylor Ascending the Stairs (from Brooks’ ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’).” Luminous, color saturated, raw, these “bastard portraits,” as Defresne has called them, are something like double exposures, and then something else altogether. Somewhere between the imaginary, the cinematic, and the real. I’d take “Teorema Man” first and, if the skirt was at least five by nine feet, “Me as Mildred Pierce,” and then I’d go from there.
Liz Brown is a writer in Brooklyn.