forever is just a weekend, more or less…
i just finished reading kiss tomorrow goodbye, a biography of barbara payton, written by john o’dowd. the following is not exactly a book review, or an attempt at rehashing barbara’s story. just some thoughts i had during and after reading.
i have no recollection of how i first heard about barbara, which is odd, because i am blessed (and cursed) with a memory that is usually almost absurd in its ability to retain details. maybe i was reading about some other tragic actress like frances farmer, someone made a tangential link in passing, and that was what piqued my interest. whatever it was, i ended up reading an interview with john that went online either right before or right after the book was published. i remember being fascinated by the strange arc of this woman’s short life, which swan-dived so quickly it was almost impossible to believe. i read some more about her on the internet, looked at some pictures, watched bride of the gorilla (easily accessible because of its public domain status, with bits of it chopped up and dropped into the fourth progress report video), and thought, “what a beautiful woman.”
then i ordered the book and forgot about it for a year or two. that seems to happen to me a lot. my mind gets busy with other things. i would think about barbara from time to time, and what i knew of her and the sadness of her life kind of haunted me…but i wouldn’t read the book. i think i dreaded it in a way; this is someone who went from a rising A-list actress making $10,000 a week, to a penniless prostitute making $5 a trick, in a relatively short period of time. so i was pretty sure it wouldn’t be easy going if it was as honest and in-depth as you hope any good biography will be.
for about as long as i can remember, i’ve always felt strangely drawn to these tragic figures. often they’re beautiful women who seemed to have it all, before everything went horribly wrong. for a long time, i assumed i had a predilection for the macabre, and that was that. now i’m beginning to think it’s something else entirely — a sort of voyeuristic empathy, for lack of a better description. i see these people with all of their talent and intrinsic goodness, i see how it was destroyed or squandered, and i wish i could rewrite the story to have a different ending.
i see something of myself in the way they keep trying to connect or be heard, while the people around them use them up and then throw them away like trash, if they don’t ignore them altogether. and maybe, on some selfish level, i wish i could write myself into the story. i probably wouldn’t be able to cause any appreciable change, but at least i could try to let them know someone cares and they’re not alone. i don’t think i’ve ever felt that about anyone as strongly as i feel it in this case.
a fair amount of material has been written about barbara over the years — most of it little more than an extension of the things that were written about her while she was alive, vilifying her and painting her as some sort of evil slut hellbent on destroying herself. now here’s a book that i think finally gets at who she really was, on a far deeper level than i thought was even possible. i’m not sure how john o’dowd did it. it can’t have been an easy book to write or research, especially when it came to trying to untangle her long descent into a kind of living hell.
so much of it is so terribly sad — especially when there are these moments of great beauty and humanity cradled in the midst of all the squalor and degradation. some of the pictures are haunting beyond words. the image of her leaving court just after she lost custody of her son is somehow more painful for me than any of the pictures of her looking torn up by life later on, because she’s still so beautiful there, but she looks so profoundly lost. it seems like her young son was the only person in her life, aside from maybe her sister-in-law, who ever really loved her for just who she was, good and bad. i can’t imagine the pain of having that taken away when your whole world is crumbling around you, right when you need it most.
what really makes me angry is how different things would probably be today, at least in terms of her treatment by the press. you look at someone like britney spears. she completely destroyed her career not so long ago, drowning it all in a sea of drugs, sex, and head-shaving, probably traumatizing her children in the process. but for all of the media’s suffocating attention and “anything is news” mentality, you still had other celebrities reaching out and dr. phil trying to help (or maybe just trying to get himself some press).
when she came back, slapped a wig on her stubbly head, and decided she wanted a career again, people embraced her with open arms after raking her over the coals mercilessly, and all was forgiven almost overnight. now she sings songs openly celebrating what a trainwreck she was/is — not that she’s written any of them herself — and the public eats it up. she’s just as successful as she ever was. and what she does is completely artificial…who is she really? does she even know? she’s more of a product than a person. there isn’t a single thing about her or what she does that has ever seemed real to me. she’s a plastic pop tart.
or look at the likes of katy perry and ke$ha, who have built entire careers around singing about the wonders of drinking to the point of passing out and maybe, if you’re lucky, getting raped at a party while you’re unconscious. because if you can’t remember what happened last night, it must have been great, and there’s nothing better than waking up in a mess of your own vomit and piss. and this shit is celebrated as being cool. no one raises an eyebrow. no one cares.
now look at barbara payton. she’s similarly targeted by the press sixty years ago, and the movie industry collectively decides to freeze her out and end her career just as it’s beginning, because she’s wild, she likes sex, she doesn’t try to hide it, she says what’s on her mind, drama seems to follow her around like an ominous cloud, and she calls people on their bullshit. she makes a lot of unwise decisions, but the press seems to delight in picking apart every little thing she says and does, spinning everything to cast her in the most negative light possible. they go out of their way to turn her into a bad joke.
she gets her act together in the late 1950s, gets serious, tries to get her career back on track…and she’s ignored, humiliated, shut out. today she would be celebrated as being outspoken and cutting-edge. witness lady gaga, and how exciting and out-there that vacant vessel is considered to be. barbara would eat her for breakfast. unlike most of today’s “stars”, there was nothing phony about her. she wasn’t pretending to be anyone other than who she was. she wanted to party and have a lot of sex, and she also wanted to be an actress. these days those things can apparently coexist and you’re still allowed to maintain a career, at least if you’ve got looks and are a good draw at the box office (lindsay lohan, anyone? she could rape a kitten while destroying a strip mall, and it still wouldn’t make her an outcast).
here you had a woman who was almost otherworldly in her beauty, with raw acting talent that probably would have only continued to develop into something deeper, if given the chance…and the very people who made all her dreams possible shook her awake, and made sure she never got another chance to dream. all of their doors were closed to her for the rest of her life, practically none of her peers ever lifted a finger to help her after she was blackballed, and almost no one showed up at her funeral outside of immediate family. hollywood, in a way, killed her long before she committed her own slow suicide in cheap hotels and dimly lit bars. after she was dead and there was nothing more for the vultures to pick at, they killed her memory too.
i’m not naïve enough to believe the different cultural landscape today would eradicate any of her personal problems, which played a large role in her downfall. but i think it’s safe to say she would at least be allowed to have much more of a career, and that could have made a difference. it’s also clear from reading the book that she had some form of mental illness, whether it was a bipolar disorder or something else, and drinking was a way of self-medicating. today there isn’t so much stigma attached to mental illness or addiction, and the revolving door rehab dance is happening everywhere you look. barbara never got the help she deserved. if she had been a man, or if she had been born a few decades later, it may have been a different story.
hollywood aside, i think the key to understanding how and why it all went so wrong is the childhood abuse she suffered. i know firsthand how much that can mess a person up…i was lucky enough not to suffer any physical abuse, but the emotional abuse i experienced at the hands of my mother and stepfather effectively destroyed my sense of self-worth, and has had a huge effect on a lot of choices i’ve made over the years. i got into drugs and tried to destroy myself for a while after i got out of high school. i felt i was completely worthless.
i’ve struggled with depression. because i never got any love or support from my mother, i’ve always craved any kind of closeness i can get with the opposite sex, and too much of my sense of my own worth has been wrapped up in the way women treat me. when your mind works that way, and just about every woman who has ever been in your life has treated you like a disposable piece of shit regardless of how much you’ve given them, emotionally and otherwise, well…it ain’t exactly a recipe for fun.
it took me the better part of three decades, and a lot of pain and rejection, to finally realize that i don’t need a woman to complete me, and i’m okay the way i am. it’s far better to be alone than to be with someone who has no understanding of who you are, and no respect for you or your feelings. but even with all of the things i’ve worked out and come to understand, it still isn’t always easy. i don’t think those childhood wounds ever really heal completely.
in barbara’s case, there was both sexual and emotional abuse. there’s also the possibility that her father sexually abused her in some way, although it looks like we’ll never know for sure. what gives the theory some weight is the way her father always seemed to detest her, for some reason that was never made clear. he was kind and generous with everyone else in the family, but in his eyes barbara could never do anything right, and by all accounts he never gave her any tangible love or support at any point in her life — in some cases seemingly going out of his way to make sure she knew he felt nothing for her.
even if nothing inappropriate ever happened between them, there’s absolutely no way his cold, contemptuous treatment of his daughter didn’t have a profound impact on shaping her psyche. i know what being denied that love from my mother did to me. one of the saddest passages in the book (at least before things really go to hell) is when her sister-in-law comes across a journal of barbara’s full of prayers to her father, asking him to please just love her. on some level, i think she was always a little girl searching for her father’s love. when she could never have it, even for a moment, it became more about getting approval from any man she could, and as many as she could. the clearest path to get there was with her beauty and sexual prowess. but it’s clear that void was never filled.
a friend of barbara’s says something in the book that i think explains a lot — about how they felt she had been hurt so badly as a young girl, her perception of love and sex became completely twisted. she came to equate sex with power, and since it had been used against her when she was incapable of fighting back, she used her looks as a way to turn it around and, in a way, get revenge on men. she was the aggressor, and it seemed she almost wanted to be the man. but at the same time there was this great vulnerability and insecurity, and she wanted to be loved and taken care of.
i knew someone like this, and reading about barbara made me understand some things about her in a different way. but where the person i knew didn’t seem to want to have a normal, healthy relationship with anyone — and when someone who could offer that came along, she sabotaged it (maybe because she felt she didn’t deserve it) — i don’t think it was that simple with barbara. i think she really did want love and true intimacy. men just didn’t seem willing or able to give it to her.
they saw a beautiful woman, and they wanted to sleep with her and possess her. she was not a person to them, but a thing. and when you’re taught your whole life that all you’re really good for is sex, eventually you start to believe it. destroying her looks with drugs and alcohol, and sleeping with anyone who had a few dollars, seems to have been a way to punish herself as much as it was a desperate way to try and stay alive after every other door was closed to her. it could have also been a way of saying, “if all i’m valued for is the way i look, i’ll make myself as ugly as i can and throw it back in your face” — a way to confront people and force them to look at her, even if it was for all the wrong reasons. and maybe there was still the buried hope that the sex would somehow lead to something deeper.
maybe if some man had been able to show her that he cared about who she was more than what she looked like, and made it clear she had worth to him as a human being instead of as a sex object, it would have made a difference. i don’t know if she ever felt truly loved, or like she was ever seen for who she really was, and understood, and accepted. and i think that’s very sad.
i don’t think she was a blameless victim exactly…she made some very unhealthy choices when better options were available. but i think most of those decisions were either made out of a desire to connect and get some sort of validation, or they were made when she had already been discarded and shown over and over again that she wasn’t wanted or valued.
i also think it may have been different if she had some sort of outlet, or a place to channel some of her demons. i’ve been lucky enough to have music as a place for ugly feelings to go. i know in that time and place women were not always encouraged to be different or artistic, but i can’t help thinking that if barbara had been able to motivate herself to cultivate a real passion for something aside from acting — something that she was truly gifted at, like cooking, or interior design, or upholstering, which were all skills she had — it might have given her some real stability, or at least some respite.
i guess there will always be more questions than there are answers. but i feel like i understand her now about as well as i could ever hope to, in ways i never thought i would, and that’s because of a book almost no one wanted to publish. how sad is it that people still want to brush her under the carpet and forget about her, nearly half a century after her death? it seems some things never change.
fuck you, hollywood. you’re a soulless cesspool. i hope i live long enough to see you die choking on your own spit. maybe the entire mass media structure can die along with you, so we can save on funeral expenses.