Saturday, August 14, 2010

Marion Davies. Gold-digger? Lolita? Feminist?

Here's a question, what do I do when my mother makes me take a 4 hour ride in hazy traffic to Pine Mountain Lake, CA just west of Yosemite National Park? My first thought was to double up on airplane size bottles of Stoli, but I decided against it as my liver needs a break. Turns out the house we are renting have a swell collection of old book of the most random persuasion; everything from the John McCain biography to H.G. Wells. While my family and their friends decided to go fishing, I parked my sorry ass on the tacky 80's couch with something that promised intrigue, and at that time as much of a good night as a stiff vodka cran. 
The title was ‘Marion Davies; The Times We Had’, I couldn’t wait, the sleeve promised to be ‘candid’ and ‘unrestrained’. Oh the juicy details of what it was like charity banging the richest geriatric the world has ever known. I had so many questions, well not really questions, but a need for confirmation. Was ‘rosebud’ really the nickname for her vagina? Did she really sleep with Leslie Howard? Charlie Chaplin? Dick Powell? Well buckle up America. Marion has very little to say!
Brief history. Most people remember Marion Davies as the mistress of W.R. Hearst, the larger-than-life, first self-made billionaire of the 20th century, newspaper tycoon and the blueprint of Charles Foster Kane. Most people remember something about her being blonde, and not much more. Well here’s the gist. He fell in love with her when she was a 16 year old chorus girl, plucked her out of oblivion and moved her to his ridiculous castle somewhat north of Santa Barbara, named San Simeon. It was half the size of Rhode Island. Lucky bitch. Anyway, W.R. wanted to show his love and devotion in more ways than just building a giant prison on top of a cliff from which she couldn’t escape and decided to jump-start her acting career. He figured if he knew enough to make a publishing empire run smoothly, the same would work for films right? Wrong. All of the films he stuck her in were dreary, banal costume dramas that garnered more jeers than praises, except of course if the critic happened to work for a Hearst paper. They spent the rest of their lives together, hosting wild Hollywood parties, hosting zoo tours, and hosting luncheons…that was her life.
In the book, (some taken from dictation some she wrote herself) there is a lot of jabber about jewelry, outfits, the weird behavior of animals she berated at the private zoo at San Simeon…but c’mon Marion, open the drapes! How big of a freak was W.R.? I mean seriously, did anyone actually care about her film career? Apparently she had one. I’ve only seen snippets of ‘When Knighthood was in Flower’ and ‘Cecilia of the Pink Roses’ (I know, film titles have come a long way), but if we look at Marion Davies, we can’t really put her in any category of deviance. At worst, she was a floozy without any talent, at best; she was somewhat entertaining and sexy.
I really was expecting more stories about the wild parties up in that secluded castle in San Luis Obispo that I visited once when I was 16. Imagine, 40 to 50 guests, all of them Hollywood power players with their fat wives at home with the knitting. Bootlegged liquor and champagne flowing into both the indoor and outdoor pools. Chaplin skinny dipping with Lillian Gish, Valentino eating Charlotte Russe off of Norma Talmadge, Anthony Asquith getting it on with the house boy, Louise Brooks kicking up her skirt for the Charleston…how delicious!
San Simeon as it is now, San Luis Obispo, California.

Alas, most of the book reads as so… ‘I did this film with this guy, it was ok…’ Most paragraphs include mention of ‘Pops’, her quasi-oedipal and creepy nickname for Hearst, who was 34 years her senior, but nothing too juicy. Her autobiography in the end, turned out to be as banal as her films from the silent era through the transition to sound, until she eventually stopped altogether in the late 1930’s. They promise much, and deliver little. Is Marion a deviant? I don’t think so. She might be considering she was the world’s most famous Lolita at a time when Nabokov was still in grammar school. She lived openly with a man too old for her even by California standards, who by the way remained married to some not-so-spunky frumpy uberbitch until his death. She was sassy, spunky, and by all accounts sexually aware. And despite rumors to the contrary, she remained faithful to the ‘Pops’ the whole time. Chaplin, Gilbert, even Valentino wanted a smell of that rosebud but according to her, none of them got a whiff. But hey, I guess it’s an even trade for a career, considering she admitted openly that she had no talent whatsoever.
In a way, Marion Davies is a feminist, doing what she wants on her own terms. As she famously stated; ‘With me it was 5% talent and 95% publicity’. Ironically enough, we still can’t forgive Anna Nicole Smith. But perhaps that’s not fair. Marion had boatloads of personality, so what if she was a few notches above the character of Rita Leads on ‘Arrested Development’? (For some reason, I see a very big parallel between the two, to the point of thinking that the Mitch Horwitz used Davies as the inspiration of Rita; the girl that is amazingly sexy but doesn’t understand anything about sex). If she was anything, Davies was whimsical. And whimsy + being a tease = success on a gold plated scale.  She seemed to make the transition from turn-of-the-century lady into 1920’s party girl very easily, because in her head, she was probably already there. She was always looking for a good time. I sometimes wonder how she managed to stay so light and cheerful throughout everything. I really thought that book would at least open up unto some troubles she had and how she dealt with them, but nope…aside from a minor fight with Lillian Gish, there wasn’t too much to mention...Marion turned out to be a lot less than what we all expected from her. She wasn’t a slut, she wasn’t a sex maniac, and she wasn’t that interesting at all. 

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