Friday, September 19, 2008

A Man Going 'Round Taking Names

I’ve been reading William Anthony Nericcio’s Tex[t]-Mex: seductive hallucinations of the “Mexican” in America (University of Texas, 2007), and just finished the chapter on Rita Hayworth, baroquely titled “When Electrolysis Proxies for the Existential: A Somewhat Sordid Meditation on What Might Occur if Frantz Fanon, Rosario Castellanos, Jacques Derrida, Gayatri Spivak, and Sandra Cisneros Asked Rita Hayworth Her Name at the Tex[t]-Mex Beauty Parlor.” One of the leitmotifs of his text, you see, is the protracted and very painful course of electrolysis Hayworth (born Margarita Cansino) was forced to undergo by the movie studio to raise her hairline and make her look less “Mexican.” Before she was “discovered” by Hollywood, like America by Columbus, she had performed as a dancer in Tijuana with her father, who dyed her hair black to make her look more “Mexican.” Another leitmotif is the name change, adding a “y” to her mother’s maiden name (Haworth) so that movie audiences would know how to pronounce it.

So, I’ve been wondering about this obsessive focus on things like names. I realize, of course, what a minefield I’m tiptoeing into just by saying something like “things like names.” Is a name a “thing”? What other “things” are “like” names? And so on; even to acknowledge such questions is to adopt the manner of the style of academic writing Nericcio practices. He has a major boner for the late Jacques Derrida, whom I have not yet begun to read, and I often sensed, while reading “When Electrolysis Proxies for the Existential,” that Hayworth was just grist for Nericcio’s application of Derrida – that he was using her no less than Harry Cohn did, or her first husband Ed Judson, or her incestuous father, or her second husband Orson Welles. Nericcio is aware of this on some level, but that doesn’t keep him from doing it. In all of this he’s typical of his profession, though he’s more entertaining than most: a frothy, name-dropping writer, indeed something of an academic gossip columnist -- given to sometimes amusing and informative asides and digressions. There’s one, for example, involving a chat-fight among Derrida, John Searle, and Michel Foucault (pages 100-102), and a brief mention of fellow-scholar Rosario Castellano’s gruesome death that could have appeared in the National Enquirer (88), to say nothing of Cansino/Hayworth’s sexual abuse by her father (89).

But I, too, digress: I meant to talk about names. What with her brutal father and the tortuous regime of electrolysis, I’d say changing her name was the least of Cansino/Hayworth’s problems. Reading Nericcio you’d get the impression that only “Latins” were expected to assimilate their names; maybe he assumes that his readers would know how routine this was and is in the entertainment industry. But of course Jews had to do it too. To name just a few: Jacob Julius Garfinkle, Mendel Berlinger, Nathan Birnbaum, Allan Stewart Konigsberg, Betty Joan Perske, Bernard Schwartz, Issur Danielovitch, and especially interesting in this context, silent film star Jacob Krantz, who Hollywood figured would sell better as “Latin lover” Ricardo Cortez. (This pattern isn’t limited to actors, as exemplified by screenwriter, novelist and pseudo-philosopher Alisa Zinovievna Rosenbaum.)

Anglo goyim were put through the same meat grinder, not just of renaming but of cosmetic adjustment: Marion Robert (or Michael) Morrison, Virginia Katherine McMath, Ruby Catherine Stevens, Myrna Adele Williams, Norma Jeane Mortenson / Baker, Leonard Franklin Slye and Frances Octavia Smith, Frances Ethel Gumm, Archie Leach, Lucille Fay LeSeuer, and Roy Harold Scherer Jr. (More recently, the young American actor Kalpen Suresh Modi found that he got more work by shortening his Indian name to Kal Penn. And this sketchy Wikipedia article is a reminder of the different uses that pseudonyms have had, historically and cross-culturally.)

As a child of the Sixties, I must also cite the great riddlemaker Robert Zimmerman, a middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota who entranced folk-music purists with his "authentic" performance as the reincarnation of Dust Bowl balladeer Woody Guthrie -- before he changed masks again and became a gothic rocker, a country singer, a born-again Christian, and finally the institution Bob Dylan himself. On October 31, 1964, he told an audience that had grown restive at some of his newer, non-protest songs, "It's just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on."

I’ve noticed that a lot of people (including me, to be scrupulously fair) are intensely ambivalent about Hollywood. On one hand it’s the great maker of myths that shapes and inspires our fantasies and taught us how to dream, a cornucopia of imagination and glamour and spectacle; on the other hand it’s a narrow ambit of lies, with its small-town America that never was, its bigoted stereotyping of women, foreigners, people of color, and gay people. On the third hand, some would claim Hollywood as reality and role model. In the documentary The Celluloid Closet, Tony Curtis declares: “Movies are part of my life, part of everybody’s life. That’s where we learn about life. Watching Cary Grant taught me how to behave with a woman, how to get dressed at night, how to go to a restaurant and order dinner.” The Celluloid Closet is an especially vivid case of this ambivalence, exalting Hollywood as “that great maker of myths” only in order to complain that Hollywood was a bad mother who never really loved us.

Tex[t]-Mex, I think, is similarly confused. Insofar as Margarita Dolores Cansino wanted to get into Hollywood, she was entering a maze of mirrors as disorienting as the one she’d later inhabit in The Lady from Shanghai. One didn’t sign a contract with a major studio in order to fulfill oneself, but to lose oneself; not to express one’s true being but to be made over; not to become a human being but a star, the product of a huge commercial enterprise; to be redefined by that enterprise and fenced in by it (with all the constraint and protection the term implies); to have not a self but an image. Cansino would have had some idea what she was getting into, having appeared in numerous B-movie vehicles under her own name before the big boys took her on and took her over. It was a Faustian bargain.

It seems strange to me that people would demand authenticity, reality, integrity from Hollywood -- or from entertainment generally. There’s a reason why Puritans have always denounced the theatre, even apart from its historical association with lewd displays and prostitution: what offends them most profoundly is people pretending to be someone they aren’t, wearing masks, using fake voices and accents, parroting words written for them by others. Men pretending to be women, women pretending to be men. Often the artificiality is an end in itself.

So it becomes odd to insist, or even to suggest, that the studios should have let Margarita Cansino keep her father’s name, her natural hairline, her natural hair color. Should she also have been forbidden to play Anglos? I sympathize with those who have demanded that “Asians” should play “Asians,” and earlier the objections to white performers in blackface playing blacks, and nowadays there is controversy over straight actors playing gay or lesbian characters. There are social, political dimensions to these questions that I don’t mean to brush aside. But I still think that these criticisms ultimately lead to a cul-de-sac, a literalism that is at odds with the worlds of fantasy that art and entertainment are supposed to open for us. And if those of us who have previously been marginalized are allowed into the Magic Kingdom and given the controls, will the dreams and fantasies we create be any better?