Thursday, October 29, 2009

And Now for Something Completely Different (Rex Reed and the New Journalism - 1968)

The New Journalism began in the pages of Esquire magazine in 1963 when Tom Wolfe was stumped as to how to write an article about a recent visit he made to a California custom car show featuring the futuristic fiberglass visions of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Wolfe showed his editor his rough notes and it was the editor’s genius to tell the dandy in the white ice cream suit that all the magazine had to do was publish his hyperbolic rough notes. And so “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” was born. And along with it the New Journalism.

The New Journalism employed novelistic techniques to tell a story or portray a subject. The scene, as opposed to the fact, became the basic unit of this form. Wolfe followed his initial offering with profiles of moonshiner turned race car driver Junior Johnson, “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson, Yes!” (adapted into the 1973 movie The Last American Hero starring Jeff Bridges as Johnson and prominently featuring the Jim Croce classic, “I’ve Got a Name”), and Phil Spector, “The First Tycoon of Teen.” The latter includes the famous incident where the high-strung record producer demands to be let off a jetliner about to take off because he’s convinced everybody on board is a loser and the plane is sure to crash. (Conversely, Wolfe would later use the traditional tools of the journalist to sell the reality of his novels, such as The Bonfire of the Vanities.)

In 1966, the trajectory of the New Journalism in Esquire was fixed with the publication of Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” in which is recorded for posterity that famous confrontation between Old Blue Eyes and science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. In Huntington Hartford’s Show magazine, Gloria Steinen produced “A Bunny’s Tale,” her account of going undercover as a neophyte Bunny at Hugh Hefner’s New York Playboy Club (this article was the basis for a TV movie starring Kirstie Alley as Ms. Steinem). And in the New Yorker, Truman Capote published early chapters of what he would later refer to as his non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood.

It is very odd to think of movie critic and gossip writer Rex Reed in the same pantheon as these gods of New Journalism. But, in reading his Do You Sleep in the Nude?, a 1968 collection of articles originally published in The New York Times, New York Magazine (when it was the Sunday supplement of the eternally mourned Herald Tribune), Cosmopolitan and Esquire, one could make a case that Reed was also trying to change journalism by pushing back the frontiers of what was permissible in the celebrity interview. His method is artful in its simplicity: he simply sits back, observes his subjects and allows them to reveal themselves to him.

Reed was no mere handmaiden of the celebrity flack. Like Sidney Falco with J.J. Hunsecker, he was more than happy to bite the hand that fed him. Reed’s interview subjects are an unusual mix of Old Hollywood (Lucille Ball, Buster Keaton), New Hollywood (George Peppard, Sandy Dennis) Broadway (Leslie Uggams, Gwen Verdon), legends (Marlene Dietrich, Lotte Lenya) and literary figures (Robert Anderson, Marianne Moore), with some occasional oddball ringers let in such as Governor Lester Maddox and the Living Theatre. Many of the New Hollywood types, such as Shirley Knight and Peter Fonda, seem to have an ambivalent attitude towards fame and success. And in similar fashion, Reed seems to have an ambivalent attitude about many of those he is interviewing. Reading this collection, one gets the sense that Reed’s journalistic persona was a work in progress, drawn to the glamour of the world he was covering while, at the same time, trying to penetrate its glitzy surface to find out what really lay underneath it.

Born in Texas, Reed seems to gravitate towards Southern subjects, such as Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams. He interviews the sick and elderly McCullers right before the release of the movie adaptation of her Reflections in a Golden Eye (an all-star disaster from 1967 directed by John Huston and starring Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Brian Keith and introducing Robert Forster). Reed does a wonderful job of describing McCullers’ life at February House, a Brooklyn literary collective of the forties made up of Christopher Isherwood, Richard Wright, W.H. Auden, Jane and Paul Bowles and--improbable but true--Gypsy Rose Lee (working on her novel, The G-String Murders), all living and working under the same roof. Reed’s account of life at February House is infectiously written and reads like a coming attraction for Sherill Tippins’ February House, published almost forty years later. (A musical adaptation of the book is currently in the works.)

The less said about Reed’s interview with Williams, the better. Inspired by the famous playwright, he strains for effect trying to emulate Tennessee’s inimitable Southern Gothic voice, as though he had overdosed on beignets at the CafĂ© du Monde (which in itself is an infelicitous imitation of Williams’ style). Similarly, when he writes about Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, Reed sounds like a lost character in one of Antonioni’s movies.

Reed’s portrayal of New Hollywood is generally more revelatory than his overly reverential depiction of Old Hollywood. The sole exception is Ava Gardner, who gets off the all-time greatest putdown of Frank Sinatra when describing his marriage to Mia Farrow: “I always knew Frank would end up with a boy.” Reed manages to capture those on the cusp of fame. He interviews Warren Beatty right before Bonnie and Clyde (elusive, as always) and Mike Nichols right before The Graduate (pretentious, as always). But Reed digs and gets Nichols to reveal his impoverished existence before he hit the big time with Elaine May.

And every now and then, Reed perfectly manages to capture both the subject and the time he is writing about, such as this description from his poolside interview with Peter Fonda, before the success of Easy Rider: “Lying on his back, talking to a tape recorder, getting it down straight, the sun burning into his skin, with imported Helena Rubenstein ‘Bikini’ lotion turning his tan to butterscotch and a four-inch scar slashing across his stomach where he once shot himself with a gun when he was ten years old, drinking Carlsbad beer while fourteen Bozak-610 speakers played Vivaldi and Ravi Shankar and ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ throwing it up to the hills above the tennis courts.” This is one impressive sentence, even if there is no subject or predicate in sight. And, if nothing else, this is all the proof we need that Reed should have been a card-carrying member of the New Journalism—like those others, he wasn’t afraid to break the rules to get to the truth of something.