MR WOW—Wasting Away (Again) in Margaritaville.
With a Few movies thrown in to lighten the mood.
“Happy drunks are clowns—big smiles, warm eyes, over-affection. A happy drunk wants everything to last forever: moments, talks, smiles.”
Well, the happy drunk certainly describes Mr. Wow to a T. (I read the above in GQ recently.)
Most of you know I came to drinking late in life, especially considering I’d been knocking around Manhattan since I was 15. But once convinced to try it (“Come on, you’re nearly 20. You can’t go into bars and not drink!”) I found I had quite a taste for it. Unlike my fears about drugs—though I’d had my share of LSD—drinking seemed safe and simple and oh, so much fun. Back then, I wasn’t in the least depressed. Or I didn’t manifest any outward signs of it anyway.
I was pretty happy guy. Tipsy I was a riot. And a great big slut. (This led to disastrous health woes way down the road.)
After I moved in with B. in 1976, I drank less. He had his own issues at that time with over-indulging, and I felt it was better not to become Edward Albee’s George and Martha right away. Of course there was the occasional slip-up, but I kept myself in check more or less, until I began working in Manhattan. Right downstairs was a terrific restaurant that served margaritas made from gasoline. This was difficult to ignore. I also began keeping giant jugs of white wine in the fridge and the omnipresent vodka in the freezer.
As my responsibilities (and anxieties) at work grew, so did my “need” to relax with a few drinks. Like–a slug of vodka in the a.m. to the wine at night. In between—who the hell knew? My work never suffered, though I often worked with a hangover. Even at late-night events, I stayed on my feet, charming and able to remember everything I was supposed to remember. However, this was a far from healthy way to treat my kidneys. And there were blackouts and nights I came home sodden, ripe, and suspiciously…rumpled. B. looked away, for the most part. I said, more than once “I think I have a drinking problem”…”I think maybe I should go to AA.” B. would pish-posh this, “Oh, it’s just the people you hang out with…it’s your work.”
B. himself still had the occasional beer-induced outburst, which were scary, not at all happy. Maybe he just didn’t want to face that. Or that my problem was real and could be ruinous. I talk. He listens. He hopes I can generally talk myself to sense. If it’s my problem.
Also my wariness about his drinking, all but destroyed our social life. I couldn’t relax, and when I can’t relax, neither can the world. Every time we were out and he picked up a beer I froze and frowned ominously—what would this lead to? He’d always start out cheery and flirty, but that could move swiftly to other moods. My fretfulness annoyed him, and he got caught up in my mental hand-wringing, which resulted in dark looks and nervous, warnings/questions from me—“You’ll be okay, right? You promised. Don’t do this to me.” (He had his issues, which are not my right to tell.)
In time, however, my own imbibing became way too much, and I ‘fessed up to friends, my boss, and others that I was becoming a dangerously heavy drinker. I vowed to stop. Most everybody was shocked. “We know you like to drink, but—I’ve never seen you drunk! I did stop, for six months. It wasn’t a problem. I didn’t see spiders on the wall, thank you very much, “The Lost Weekend.”
Then, one night, at an event, I absentmindedly picked up a glass of white wine and sipped slowly it all night. I impressed myself with my restraint and thought, “Well, maybe I can be a normal social drinker.” I impress myself easily when I want to. The house was already dry—no wine, no vodka. (B. preferred beer, which made me gag.) So, I did begin to drink socially, and I was pretty good. But—those margaritas downstairs in the city were a siren song, and now and again there’d be a bad night—almost always a school night, too. But I never thought about having a drink at home anymore.
The years rolled on. Finally, after one last outburst, B. stopped keeping beer in the house. (It came after a visit with his parents—never a happy experience.) He is now abstemious. Me? Mostly good. Sometimes not so much. Always on a slippery slope.
Flash forward to this past year. Stressed; out of a salary, but still coming in to “work.” I began having two margaritas at lunch. That was okay. Sorta. I was often better after getting a bit oiled—more relaxed, more creative. Less inclined to allow office politics or personalities to get me down. The real problem was after work. Sometimes as many as four more margaritas. Or six. And a few times, more than six. I was coming home obviously buzzed, if not downright drunk. Then there were the falls. I bashed up my arms, my hand, my ass (yes, I fell on my ass twice in one night, on the same cheek. Took three weeks to finally fade. ) I walked into walls, literally. I tripped down steps. I tore the knees of my jeans. I wasn’t happy about all this. I worried.
But then I’d think, once I was near my beloved margaritas, “Oh, poor baby. Don’t you think you deserve a few drinks? Look at what your situation is. Have another, sweetie.” (My “situation” would have been considerably improved if I didn’t spend a small fortune drinking, though I certainly got plenty of free drinks or half price—I was an old and valued customer, after all.) Let’s just say most of 2012 and quite a bit of 2013 so far has been fuzzy, painful, more than usually depressing. You can see why I haven’t been in touch too often. To be frank, I’ve been ashamed. I hated falling back.
Then, about four weeks ago, I went out with a friend, someone I hadn’t seen in a while. But instead of telling B. the truth—that it was just a casual night out–I lied and said I had to go to a screening. I don’t know why I lied. I often have problems announcing to B. that I am committed to this or that event. It’s very childish, almost fearful. Not that he has ever demanded me to stay home, but an aspect of all my relationships is like this—I have to feel I’m doing something wrong…that whatever I do I’ll be chided for…and so I’ll procrastinate and suffer over something simple, something B. would not object to.
My friend and I went out. I had a small salad for lunch and two margaritas so strong I could smell them as the waiter brought them to the table! I was mildly intoxicated by the time I met my friend. Merely cheery. But he knows me well. He laughed and said, “Are you stoned already?!” I drew myself up in my best Greer Garson manner and said, “Certainly not!” Yeah, well, I certainly was. Four drinks and several hours later my friend and I headed back to Hoboken, on the bus, a trip that has been lost to memory. I was home later than is usual for a screening and after-party. B. was awake, concerned, and then baleful when he saw me tumble in. “Oh” I said dismissively, before he could speak, “It went later than I thought it would.” (I was trying not to slur and to be deliberate in my movements—like drunk people are, trying not to act drunk, usually when confronted by the sober.)
“You’re drunk” said B. with grim certainty.
“I’m just a little ‘happy’” I said, and with that, took a step back and fell down with a frightening “clunk!” I laughed. “I guess maybe a little drunk.” B. was not amused. “You are disgusting!” he admonished. And I couldn’t disagree, but still found the whole thing hilarious.
Less hilarious was the next morning, a Saturday. I was, incredibly, not terribly hung over (It was drinking on an almost empty stomach that really did me in.) But I’d realized the night before that something had happened to my glasses. As soon as I got in the door, before falling over, I searched through my bag for an alternate pair I always carried with me. I put those on. Awake and reasonably coherent, I looked through my bag again. The glasses I usually wore were not there. Nor were they in the hallway, or on the street outside the house nor anywhere on the pavements around the house. Both directions—since I couldn’t recall by which street I came home. Somehow, I’d lost them. I also found a dreadful scrape on my shoulder/collarbone. My shirt wasn’t torn, but apparently I’d fallen in a very peculiar way.
B. was sweet, more concerned about how I felt than how I got to feel so bad. Still, no conversation about how I must stop drinking. He knows I am often perversely resistant to criticism, and that his manner of criticism—having once been a professor– is very, “Do as I say, now!” Icy and stern. I get my back up, and nothing is ever accomplished. I feel bullied and inept and he feels—I guess—that I am a spiritually empty child in the body of a (now) very middle-aged man.
But, enough was enough. One more night of falling might be my last. I visited my best friend the next day. She had once, at the peak of my “old” drinking problem, initiated a conversation with me about what was happening. This time, I initiated the conversation. She said: “Oh, Wow, I’ve been worried. But I didn’t want to say anything yet because you are under so much stress, and I know that’s where the drinking comes from.” (Yeah, that and the fact I like to drink.)
So, I’ve been trying hard to keep it down to one at lunch Maybe two if I’m especially stressed—or happy—and avoiding the place after work, where my real problem takes a grip. I’d like to say, for propriety’s sake, “I’ll never drink again.” But that would be a lie. I’ll always love a cocktail or two. If I could keep it to that, it would be okay. (Or would it?) Right now, it’s working. I’m less sodden when I arrive home. I don’t know what the future holds. AA seems so fucking Evangelical.
Hold a good thought for me. And keep that hand steady as you pour me a drink.
By the way, I don’t mean to make light of my drinking, or anybody’s alcoholism. But I can’t wallow in depressing angst over it. I have to be active and strong. Avoid temptation and ignore it if I can’t. I enjoy being a “happy drunk.” But realistically I know I can be just as happy, charming, smart and certainly less unbearably sloppy when I am sober. (What is amusing in ones’ teens. 20s 30s and even youthful-looking 40s, isn’t nice later on.)
But we’ve lingered long enough over the disintegration of my kidneys and liver. Not to mention all the dead brain cells. If there is even one left, I wonder?
I have been watching films. Recently TCM ran an entire weekend of musicals. I began with “Gold Diggers of 1933” which has Joan Blondell’s great rendition of “My Forgotten Man.” (She’s dubbed in the middle, but her intro and the end are all Joan, and she’s terriff.) Amazing what they could get away with Pre-Code. Then onto “42nd Street” starring Ruby Keeler, Bebe Daniels and an outrageously young and snappy Ginger Rogers (“That’s Anytime Annie—the only time she said ‘no’ she didn’t hear the question.”)
Now, not to be mean, but Ruby Keeler, who was supposed to be this dynamo of talent who takes over the starring role when Bebe Daniels sprains her ankle, is, well—terrible. She can’t act, she can’t sing and she dances like she’s wearing ankle weights. She’s pretty, however, and I guess her earnest gaucherie appealed to Depression-era audiences. She was married, at that time, to Al Jolson, the great stage vaudevillian. But I doubt by ’33 Jolson had much power in Hollywood. I don’t think her brief career was the result of “inside” deals, as was often rumored. She was in the right place at the right time. However, the hugely talented Ginger Rogers must have gone home shrieking when her onscreen character had to put Ruby forward as “the best” girl in the company, refusing the star role herself.
P.S. I saw Keeler in the 1971 revival of “No, No, Nanette.” The audience (And young Mr. Wow) went insane when Ruby appeared at the top of a staircase, in her tap shoes, ready to go into her dance. She still delivered her lines robotically, and moved awkwardly, but it was a sweet, splendid moment of nostalgia nonetheless. We stood and screamed.
Then came 1963’s “Bye Bye Birdie” the movie version of the stage show that director George Sidney used as a vehicle to catapult red-hot Ann-Margret to stardom. (Sidney was literally obsessed by the titan-haired kitten.) The movie is still a lot of fun. A-M’s opening and closing numbers, running toward the camera, against a vivid blue backdrop, was a jaw-dropping experience for Mr. Wow and millions of other movie-goers. It looked for a minute like she was the new MM. But a restrictive contract, too many bad films, and nobody around to tone down her wild flamboyance, destroyed her screen career by 1966. She would come back, eventually with Oscar nominations for “Carnal Knowledge” and “Tommy” but her handlers wisely knew the moment for true movie stardom had passed. She made a fortune in nightclubs (especially after she put in those huge gravity-defying implants) and proved her mettle as an actress in a series of fabulous TV movies, and interesting character roles in smaller films.
After that I got a big dose of Miss Barbra Streisand in “Hello Dolly” and “Funny Girl.” The latter I saw 15 times at the Criterion Theater on Broadway. I can still sing the entire score. Not kidding. However, I thought now what I did then—the movie kinda falls apart in the second half, and Barbra, at this point, was a wobbly, overwrought dramatic actress. It is saved by her tour de force live rendition of “My Man” at the end.
As for “Dolly” it looks better than it did upon release. At least Barbara does. There’s no chemistry between Streisand and Walter Matthau. She is too young, and photographed too ravishingly to be at all interested in him. (Just as in “Funny Girl” we don’t believe for a minute she’s an insecure ugly duckling. She is filtered and shadowed and angled like a goddess.) The direction of “Dolly” by Gene Kelly is laborious and film goes on and on. But Barbra is lusciously lively and funny. Had Carol Channing, the stage originator of Dolly Levi done it, the movie would have been an exercise in the grotesque. Brilliant on stage, Carol was not meant for the movies. She was never ever ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille.
I treated myself to another viewing of the most ravishing color noir ever—“Leave Her to Heaven.” This starred Gene Tierney as one of the coldest, sickest villainesses in screen history. She is unrepentant, and claims all her crimes were done for love of Cornel Wilde—she had to have him all for herself. With her exquisite face an immobile mask of Max Factor, Tierney with an economy of movement and expression, conveys pure evil. I won’t spoil the movie, for those who possibly haven’t seen it, but in 1946, people must have been gasping. Especially when Cornel Wilde finally confronts her: “Yes, I did it, and I’d do it again!” she admits. Great stuff. (And you’ve never seen color so vivid and atmospheric, with the exceptions of “The Red Shoes” and “Black Narcissus.”)
Interestingly, though not an out-and-out killer in “The Razor’s Edge” Gene plays a similarly obsessed woman, whose actions lead to death of another character. When Tyrone Power—as the bore with whom she is obsessed—corners her, she says almost exactly the same thing, “I did it, and I’d do it again!” She appears shocked when she finds her cruelty had led to a death, but…she recovers.
I think the last real color noir was Henry Hathaway’s Technicolor-drenched “Niagara. This starred Marilyn Monroe as a woman who for some reason or another, wants to murder her wimpy, slightly nutty hubby, Joseph Cotton, with the help of her sexy lover. (Divorce, or even just taking off, apparently wasn’t an option.) Monroe is at the peak of her lush beauty, sauntering around sans underwear, waggling her rear, pushing her pelvis forward, trying to be bad. But husky-voiced or not, there’s an essential vulnerability that peeps out. Still, it is fun to see her in a role like this—tough, determined and genuinely sensual. Until the vengeful Cotton chases her up the stairs at the Niagara belltower; then she is convincingly terrified—but still a stunner in her fitted black suit and ankle-strap high heels. She’s done terrible things, but you want her to survive.
Then, a great night with Lana Turner. First, 1959’s “Imitation of Life” which never fails to have me sobbing—the famous hotel room scene with Juanita Moore, and her rebellious, tormented, passing-for-white daughter, played by the sizzling Susan Kohner. (“I’m white! White! White!”) And the funeral to end all funerals, with Mahalia Jackson wailing “Trouble In the World” and Kohner collapsing on her mother’s flower-draped coffin, crying, “I killed my mother!” Lana is very good indeed as the somewhat clueless, selfish stage star, who ignores her own daughter (Sandra Dee) along with most other of life’s realities. But push the Jean Louis wardrobe aside and the movie belongs to the gritty Moore/Kohner storyline. (Lana’s real daughter, Cheryl Crane wrote later that she couldn’t bear to watch “Imitation” because the mother/daughter relationship between Lana and Sandra was way too close to home.)
Next came 1955’s “The Rains of Ranchipur.” Lana is an immoral, decadent, high-class nympho—married to a penniless nobleman–who falls for dedicated (and apparently virginal) Indian doctor, Richard Burton. It finally rains on Ranchipur and Miss Turner is more or less redeemed. (Unlike Myrna Loy in the original, “The Rains Came” who suffers the fate of the unfaithful.) Burton is laughable in his turban, bronze make-up and pre-Liz Taylor posturing. Turner however, is in full star mode, blindingly gorgeous, giving more to the script than it deserves, and displaying the very best posture in Hollywood history. No leading lady ever walked like Turner—half goddess, half slut. Ava Gardner came close, but Turner takes the prize; ramrod straight, gently but invitingly swaying those trim hips. (She is not particularly busty at all, for all her early “Sweater Girl” fame. She has a broad back and an impossibly pert backside. It’s really a rather odd figure. But again—that posture!) Turner is hypnotically beautiful. Later, by the time of “Imitation of Life” she had hardened. Striking, but impossibly lacquered.
I’m reading a lot of escapist thrillers and deep into Jon Meacham’s book on Thomas Jefferson, “The Art of Power.” I also discovered a nifty new makeup. So, don’t worry too much, you all. When I can still drift dreamily through Sephora, the bell hasn’t tolled for me yet.
Love you all! I really will try to stay away from tequila. And stay in touch.
Love, Mr. W.