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Every other boy had a childhood – or so it seemed to me – where they were coaxed, coached, taught, and polished. Yet their ultimate representation of all-American male youth seemed to evolve so naturally, so organically. Their strengths and traits were layered into a glimmering image of shining boyhood. From the outside looking in, they seemed to be both strong and filled with free will. They seemed completely ready and eager to make that much-talked about leap from adolescence to manhood. But listening to these other boys talking among themselves didn’t empower me to feel the same. Instead, it pushed me farther into my shell of invisibility. If only I could dribble a ball like the other boys. If only I could swagger and shout like them. If only….
My little brother Timmy was what they used to call “all-boy” – an expression that signaled the highest badge of masculinity one could bestow on a properly rough and tumble youth. I thought if only I could be like Timmy, then my Father might love me. Then perhaps I too could be the perfect boy. I could be called ‘all-boy’ too. But as desperate as I was to be that perfect boy, I’d soon discover the things that interested me would find their way onto my father’s list of ‘Real Men Don’t.’
“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
“You know something, Pinks? A lot of people can’t walk… they knit something. I’d be a lousy knitter. But I could try.”
“Oh, Sebastian, what a lovely summer it’s been. Just the two of us. Sebastian and Violet. Violet and Sebastian.”
“But you are, Blanche, you are in that chair.”
“Buckle your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
“What a dump!”
The voices of my idols – heroines, every one. Not heroes, not icons of masculine indifference or action, but women of strength and conflict and emotion. What was it about these snippets of dialogue that became constant quotations running in my mind? What manner of speech, what feelings expressed would cement these voices in my favorite Hollywood movies? It was as though a Pandora’s Box had been flung open in my very own living room and in my very own pre-adolescent soul.
A parade of dazzling images and voices came dancing out of my television set, filling my mind and imagination. Perhaps it was Elizabeth Taylor batting those violet eyes at the threat of an impending lobotomy.
Or Lucille Ball, wrapped in glittering netting, desperate for Henry Fonda to lift her out of a wheel chair for a ‘Last Dance’ in The Big Street. Maybe it was Marlene Dietrich wearing a blond Afro crooning “Hot Voodoo” in Blonde Venus. Or Anne Francis walking aimlessly though a department store in search of self-discovery in my favorite Twilight Zone episode. Perhaps it was Joan Crawford, the inimitable Crystal Allen, a social-climbing shop girl clawing her way to the top in The Women. I connected to these images, and watching them over and over, I imagined that my peers connected to watching sports figures in much the same way. And in listening to those voices saying those unforgettable and divine lines, I could somehow hear traces of my own, still silenced, voice.
‘Back in your gilded cage Melanie Daniels.’
It startled me the first time I heard it. In a flash of premonition, I would whisper that quotation to myself over and over, realizing even the first time that I heard it, that it would become my personal favorite. There was a calm that only existed when it was just mom and I staying up to watch the late scary movie. It was our shared Friday night ritual. During commercial breaks we’d make a kitchen raid. Mom’s delicacies ran the gamut from ice crème smothered in Hershey chocolate or butterscotch syrup to the last two slices of her coconut crème pie made from scratch. And if we were feeling extra deviant and rule breaking, she’d pull out a couple of hidden Payday candy bars for good measure. Every ceremony has an opening, and ours would start with mom removing all bobby pens from her hair. In later years I’d lovingly refer to this as her undoing her old lady church hair. This experience would be bittersweet, as I knew come morning she’d leave for her weekly shampoo-n- set at the salon. Leaving me alone with my Father. But for now, as I stood behind mom running the brush through her hair, I didn’t want to think about tomorrow. Being present in this moment was important. Whenever it was just the two of us, I didn’t have to pretend. I didn’t have to be invisible. And with each brush stroke watching my mothers beautiful red hair lose its lacquered, teased, and perfected form and fall softly across her shoulders, I would wonder. I wondered if she too sometimes felt the need to be something other than what was expected. There seemed to be gilded cages everywhere.
Peeking over mom’s shoulder watching the opening shot of Melanie Daniels, crossing the street and pausing to look over her shoulder, we shared our first shot of The Birds. I must have been around twelve and certainly no idea that this was to become my favorite movie. For lots of reasons….
As the years passed I learned about the cultish admiration for Tippi Hedren. That there was a camp sensibility that somehow preceded awareness of our orientation. I also learned about director Hitchcock’s obsession with his leading ladies, notably almost always icy-cold blondes. I found out that he allegedly exhibited abusive behavior toward this particular leading lady – or, at least, Tippi’s version of events.
Added into this heady mix was iconic designer Edith Head, who, taking inspiration from Chanel, created the unforgettable green suit. The image of Melanie Daniels sitting in her city fashioned suit, smoking a cigarette outside the school, while a host of birds gather behind her in the playground is one of those timeless cinematic moments.
Before the ‘real’ bird attacks begin, you soon realize there’s another kind of female flock surrounding middleman Mitch Brenner, all demanding of him. A mother, fearful of abandonment; his sister, so much younger she seems more like his daughter; a former girlfriend, so lonely she stays in Bodega Bay simply to be near Mitch. And then Melanie, who you discover before the film is over has always felt caged by her spoiled rich girl ways. What is it about a movie filled with characters so deluded and self-absorbed they deny the chaos and horror unfolding around them?
‘Back in your gilded caged Melanie Daniels!’
Keeping secrets came naturally to me. I’d listen to other boy talking sports with shared nods while looking at the latest Sports Illustrated. At times I’d catch one of those boys watching me. Perhaps he’d seen something in me? Something I didn’t want him to see? Something different? My father had repeated countless times that ‘I’d never be happy being me.” That everything about me made others sick. The boys sitting in front of me held themselves with such ease. There they would sit, knee to knee, sharing their camaraderie like a shiny badge of honor. There was no place there for boys like me. I didn’t dare tell anyone of my own buried excitement. That I’d be rushing home after school to plant myself in front of the television to watch the day’s afternoon feature “Cat People” with the mysterious French actress Simone Simon. Until then I’d make myself invisible.
“You can fool everybody, but laudie dearie me, you can’t fool a cat. They seem to know who’s not right.”
Recently I had the thrill of meeting and having a conversation with THE Robert Osborne of Turner Movie Classics. Dazzling, elegant, handsome and passionate about classic movies as you imagine only he would be. His vast knowledge and all-encompassing interest and sheer love of the movies are like (to use a cliché) a trip over the rainbow. We managed to cover everyone from Shirley Booth to Charles Laughton to my personal favorite, Vincent Price. Completely thrilling for me. Near the end of our conversation, Mr. Osborne asked out of all the classic movies I loved what could I name as my favorite. Feeling the color rise in my cheeks, I suddenly found myself becoming that twelve year-old boy again. Only now that boy no longer had to be invisible. I caught that little boy smiling with his answer. Hearing my answer of The Birds, Robert Osborne thoughtfully paused with a half smile and said gently, “Well, it wasn’t Hitchcock’s finest.” Shaking his hand I admitted with a laugh that “Perhaps you had to be there, in my moment.” He smiled and laughed too. Turning to walk away, I wondered if they still made Payday candy bars? I’d like one on the way home.