Friday, February 18, 2011

Tragic lives to entertain you

Carolyn Moynihan, Deputy editor of

If the sexual revolution sometimes appears as a doubtful benefit to civilisation, there is always one accomplishment its champions can boast: women have been liberated from the domestic sphere and can take their place in public life as equals in intelligence and dignity with men.

There are casualties, of course. One of them, French actress Maria Schneider, died earlier this month at the age of only 58. Born to a teenage mother, the child of an extra-marital affair who did not meet her father until she was 15, Maria was only 19 when she played opposite Marlon Brando in a film which remains a byword for depravity or daring, depending on which side of the revolution you take your stand.

One need never have seen "Last Tango in Paris" (I have not) to know about its dehumanising theme: sex with no hint of love between two people who do not even know one another’s name, and a scene, which, though still described in reputable newspapers by circumlocutions, is clearly simulated sodomy. Maria found out later that the part was originally scripted for a boy. She recalled much later that she was humiliated by the scene and cried real tears during it, but that she was a mere “baby” at the time and fell under the power of director Bernado Bertolucci, whom she described as “manipulative”.

Bertolucci and Brando got Oscar nominations from the avant garde for their brainwave while Maria, left to cope with the scandal and being “looked at like an animal” by men in public, rapidly progressed to a nervous breakdown and a life blighted by drug addiction, suicide attempts and broken relationships. She rarely undressed in a film again, and in latter years offered women actors this piece of advice: “Never take your clothes off for middle-aged men who claim that it’s art.”

If only Anna Nicole Smith had heard that before she met Hugh Hefner and launched her notorious public career from the pages of Playboy. But it was already far too late. At age 24, and from another dysfunctional family, the girl from the Texas backblocks had been married and separated, had borne a son and worked as a stripper. In Playboy she announced her ambition of being “the next Marilyn Monroe”. What happened was even worse than that. Anna Nicole lived one of the most bizarre and demeaning lives imaginable, goaded on by the insatiable appetite of reality television consumers for watching people self-destruct.

And that is the point, you see. Having thrown off every kind of restraint (she was a pathological over-eater as well, and foul mouthed) nobody respected her or seemed to give a damn what happened to her -- least of all the media bosses who used her so shamelessly. New York magazine put her on its cover in 1994 to illustrate a story called “White Trash Nation”. She had exposed what libertinism does to people and the liberal establishment did not like it. Her death from a drug overdose in 2009 was described by a British academic recently as follows:

"Anna Nicole did not end in a state of grace. When her son died, she hysterically entreated Jesus to take her instead, then recovered in time to sell the last photographs of him alive; at his funeral, she climbed into his open coffin. A few months later, she died in a puddle of vomit, and millions peeked at snapshots of her messy exit on the internet."

That disdainful and sarcastic account of a woman’s horrible death is just a small part of a carefully crafted (the writer, Peter Conrad, teaches English literature at Oxford) four-page article, all in a similar sneering vein. One does not have to read far into it, however, to understand the utter contempt in which some highbrow liberals hold the lowbrow victims of sexual liberation and the popular “culture” it has spawned. The whole thing is an eye-opener.

But the reason for the article is even more shocking: yesterday in London an opera based on this unfortunate woman’s life opened at the Royal Opera House. Yes, “Anna Nicole”, the opera (libretto by the same genius as gave the world “Jerry Springer, The Opera”), is going to make arty entertainment of the desperate trajectory of her life all over again -- complete with (warning on the ROH website) “sex, extreme language and drug abuse”.

But this cynical production seems to be only the beginning of a trend. Later this year, a stage show at the Globe Theatre will dramatise the life of Jade Goody, who achieved celebrity status in the UK version of Big Brother in 2002. On the strength of her “rough-around-the-edges, hard-drinking” performance (to quote one of the kinder journalistic descriptions) Jade was voted fourth place in a viewers’ poll on the “100 Worst Britons”. Next she disgraced herself by uttering racist putdowns of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother.

She was, notes one writer, “at once dismissed and over-analysed as ‘famous for being famous’, a manufactured creature whose only talent was relentless self-exposure, the dismal product of a country in thrall to the cult of celebrity.” However, the journalistic consensus seems to be that Jade “redeemed herself” by dying, very publicly, of cervical cancer -- a walking public health advertisement. She was only 28, a victim of exposure to the sexual mores of the twentieth century.

Now she is to be immortalised, or rather, deified, in a play called “The God of Soho”. Playwright Chris Hannan gushes: "The contemporary equivalent of the kings and queens and dukes that Shakespeare puts on stage are these stars. We call them our gods and goddesses."

Oh. Do we? Jade Goody did display a kind of heroism at the end of her life -- she did the best she knew to protect her two young sons, having them, and herself, christened, and using her celebrity status to earn as much money for them as she could -- but the attempt to mythologise her is absurd, and a form of commercial exploitation in the same league as Big Brother, Playboy and Last Tango. She was not a tragic queen or goddess; she was a real, misguided young woman from yet another chaotic family who seemingly never got a word of sound advice until she was face to face with death. Such lives are best left to the private memories of those who truly loved them.

Dutch soprano Eva Maria Westbroek, who takes the role of Anna Nicole in the current London production of that name, has expressed puzzlement over the motives of the woman: “Why would you do that to yourself? Where does that come from?” Ms Westbroek has decided, writes Peter Conrad in the Observer article quoted earlier in this piece, “that Anna Nicole was driven, like Salome, by an erotic compulsion that compelled her to destroy herself: ‘I find her fascinating and tragic because she really went for death.’”

Where did that compulsive eroticism come from? Well, we know one answer to that question: it came to a large extent from the culture created by film directors, porn magnates, television bosses and brand marketers -- the “middle-aged men” who cynically encouraged Maria Schneider, Anna Nicole Smith and Jade Goody to expose themselves, one way or another, in the name of art, but for reasons of profit.

To that line-up we now have to add opera house and theatre czars, playwrights and performers from the world of the higher arts, who, having emptied theatres of their traditional audience by the hollow and obscene post-modernist charades they choose to put on the stage, are now bidding to fill the seats with recruits from the bear-pit of reality TV.

That the vulnerabilities and compulsions of women from what the British like to call the “underclass” are exploited by their masters for entertainment some 40 years after Maria Schneider made her fatal mistake, should make us wonder exactly what the liberation of women means.

This article was written by Carolyn Moynihan, Deputy editor of

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