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About Mildred Pierce

03/25/2011

I got a shock a few weeks ago on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. I was at a bar, chatting with a guy I’d known for a while. I mentioned the movie Mildred Pierce, and he said he’d never heard of it. Not only that, he’d never heard of Joan Crawford. Same thing with Bette Davis. He asked me if she was the one on Golden Girls. OMG! I didn’t exactly fall off my bar stool, but my jaw dropped open.

How does this guy get to keep his membership card if he doesn’t know two of the biggest, baddest, most histrionic gay icons in all of Hollywood history?

A mitigating factor: at 30 he’s just a kid. But still …

I’m in a gay bar that plays show tunes videos on Sunday afternoon (I don’t like show tunes all that much, but there’s a fun crowd in the place well before my unglamorous 10:00 bed time) and I’m talking to a guy who doesn’t know who Bette and Joan are. I’m 59, and I’ve been out for almost three years. He’s 30 and has been more-or-less out since he was in kindergarten. And I’m telling him about how to be gay? Something is wrong with this picture.

All of which got me to thinking. Who cares who Joan Crawford is? Is this the slightest bit relevant?

The young man in question is out and he’s proud, and that’s a good thing. From what I know of his life, he’s escaped some of the most traumatic coming out issues and overt bigotry that many who made the journey before him had to face. And isn’t this what we want? A world where gay people can just be people. No secret code. No final exam. No special homemaking or hairstyling skills required. No bigotry. No need to prove ourselves worthy. A world where we go to work, have families, hold public office, fight to defend the nation – just like everyone else. No more us vs. them.

Yes. I think that is what most of us want. And yet …

As a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant male, I’ve never had to confront the societal barriers many others do. I’ve never felt a big need to define myself against the rest of the world. That said, I preserve and pass on my grandmother’s fried chicken method (hard to call it a recipe) and honor my father’s insistence on using engraved stationery. These, and a number of other things I do, help define who I am. They link me to the past and mark my place in the world.

And I think that’s what Mildred Pierce – and all the other silly, over-the-top, drama-laden, campy claptrap that comes with gay culture – does for us. Or at least it has done. The movie in question was made in 1945. That’s, um, 66 years ago. Stonewall happened in 1969. Joan Crawford died in 1977. And, Harvey Milk was killed in 1978. Every one of these events occurred before my 30-year-old friend was even born.

But, Martin Luther King was killed 43 years ago, and that’s still important. The Declaration of Independence was signed 235 years ago, and that’s still important, too.  This isn’t about how long ago things happened. It’s about defining who we are – as Americans, and as gay Americans.

Is knowing about Mildred Pierce as important as knowing about the Declaration of Independence or Martin Luther King? Of course not. But knowing the history and culture of the group to which you belong is important. And Mildred Pierce is a part of that. Don’t get me wrong. This particular movie isn’t the critical point here. It’s merely a symbol – admittedly a great big, campy, funny-when-it’s-not-supposed-to-be, hoot of a symbol – for a culture that defines gay men against the rest of the world. In ages past we did that because we had to. We don’t have to do that so much these days – but we still have a way to go for equality. And even when we do reach full equality, which we will eventually, it would be very dangerous to forget where we came from.

And, of course, there’s this: Like so many other things taken for granted by others, knowing our heritage is especially important for those of us who are coming out now and coming out late. We are publicly identifying ourselves with a community. That can feel like landing in uncharted territory. Knowing the landmarks is helpful, if not essential, to a safe passage.

Think of yourself as an immigrant in a new land studying for a citizenship test. Check out Mildred Pierce, All About Eve, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Learn a few of the more fabulous lines, like, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!” (that’s Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve.) Listen to Liza and Judy. Learn why they have such a powerful connection with millions of gay men. Learn about Stonewall and Harvey Milk. Know why they are so important to the world you live in right now.

If you’re a late bloomer and feeling all at sea, like I was a few years ago, this kind of Gay 101 knowledge might prove just the anchor point you need.

So …  Is Mildred Pierce relevant? Hell yes, she is! In all her shoulder-padded, lip-linered, scary-eyebrowed, crazy-hatted glory. God bless you, honey!

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. 03/25/2011 9:41 AM

    There’s a difference between culture and pop culture and I think Bette Davis and Judy Garland definitely fall into the pop culture category. Pop culture is transient by definition. At 59, just how familiar with Lady Gaga are you (and you may well be, but certainly not every gay man of your generation is)? Yet she is every bit as much of a gay icon as Bette Davis. I’m 28. When you think of gay pop culture icons, you think Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Judy Garland; I think Madonna,Cher and Ellen; some of my younger friends might think Lady Gaga, Sarah Michelle Geller and Adam Lambert (for that matter a 19th century gay man would probably go with St. Sebastian, and how much do either of us know about him!?).

    I absolutely agree that history and culture anchor every community. I think all gay men and women, by a certain age, ought to have at least general knowledge of the gay rights movement (including the Stonewall Riots and Harvy Milk’s story) history and culture. But while watching b&w films on a flat screen HDTV or downloading a digitized recording of Donna Summers onto an iPod might give a young gay man a starting point should he find himself in a social conversation with a gay man several generations older, it does little to anchor him with the gay community at large.

    I think it’s easy to mix up one’s own pop culture with true culture, because pop culture is important to the generation that shares it (and I think we ALL believe that our pop culture should be important to the generations that follow us because it’s ‘classic’), but in reality only the creme de la creme de la creme of pop culture is actually so dramatically defining as to enter the higher ‘culture.’

    • 03/25/2011 10:45 AM

      Greetings, and thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      I agree with you about the transient nature of pop culture. And Bette, Joan and Judy certainly belong in that category – at least for now. Per your final paragraph, we never know what will break through the ceiling and ascend to a higher level because it usually happens after we are dead.

      As for my icon choices, it has to do not only with my own age, but the age of guys I’m aiming at with the blog – late bloomers. That can include a pretty broad range of ages. Not everybody waits until he’s past 50 to finally figure out why life isn’t working – and thank God for that – but generally, as a bunch, I think we are older than the Lady Gaga crowd.

      So, I might need to write another brief post about the transience and elasticity of pop culture, and confess that I probably left out some pretty important icons. Donna Summer for example. (I draw the line at Cher. I have been actively disliking her since way before you were born.)

      All that said, I still think every gay man alive – if not everyone on the planet – needs to see All About Eve. And Sunset Boulevard for that matter. I recently showed All About Eve to a 30-year-old (not the guy I wrote about above) for the first time and he went absolutely nuts. He bought the DVD and is showing it to all his friends. So, you never know.

      Many thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I’d love to have your thoughts any time.

      Best – DP

  2. nanci Reese permalink
    03/28/2011 3:37 PM

    Dear David,
    What about the BBC program “Absolutely Fabulous”? I go to a private pharmacy at Castro and 18th. they have some sort of city funding or something so I don’t have to pay my medicare D money and the meds I pay for are cheaper than Walgreen’s. Wlagreen’s is going down fast in the pharmacy department. One time I went to local restaurant and had burger and fries and struck up a conversation with the guy next to me who looked like he had just come from the art store. He is from Peru and been here 11 years. He got so excited when I mentioned “Absolutely FAbulous”. I watched it when it came out on TV and recently watched it on DVD. I was screaming my head off and Greg who was there watching it with me said I had better pipe down the neighbors are gonna think someting bad is going on. It really holds up since the 90’s or whenever it came out.
    What about ___ I can’t think of her name- chemo brain. she is blonde, short singer and wears outrageous costumes on her singing performance and has been in several movies- some of which bombed. she got started singing in the gay bath houses in NYC in the 60’s and possibly 70’s
    Love,
    Nanci
    PS Keep up the good work

  3. nanci Reese permalink
    03/28/2011 4:13 PM

    Dear David,
    Now I remember- Bette Midler.

    • 03/28/2011 4:16 PM

      Bette is definitely one of the biggies!

      • 03/28/2011 4:17 PM

        Meaning Bette (pronounced Bette), as opposed to Bette (pronounced Betty) who would be Bette Davis.

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