I am a child of the late sixties and seventies. What this means is that I grew up at a very opportune time.
There was a social and cultural revolution going on in America and I was young enough not to have to worry about getting drafted but old enough to enjoy the tail end of hippie culture, rock ‘n roll music, the second golden age of movies and the takeover of America by a new generation.
Never mind that these people were merely the older brothers and sisters of my friends, or their aunts and uncles, most of whom I didn’t admire and none of whom I could see leading me anywhere I particularly wanted to go.
At the very worst they’d be mere placeholders, warming up the expensive seats until me and mine would make everything better, or at least a lot more fabulous, fun and fair.
So, how’d we do…………..????
This is why while I enjoy looking back on films, television and music from those days I also find it, well….a little depressing. Especially when I stay too long.
I love The Graduate, The Godfather and Cabaret and have watched them a zillion times but at this point it’s hard not to walk away disappointed that no movies these days, or for many decades since then, can measure up i.e. have quite the same impact on me.
Same with the music of The Beatles, Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Motown.
Let’s not even start with Laugh-In, Carol Burnett or the early shows of Norman Lear.
And the first time I saw a then-unknown Bette Midler perform on The Tonight Show in 1971 on my teeny tiny black and white screen TV.
Yet I have no baggage for anything that was made, or takes place, prior to that time.
If it’s great, or fun or thoughtful or silly I can live there as long as I like and not have it mess with my psyche. It lingers in my mind safely and I can enjoy it as many times as I like and for as long as I like any time I need some cheering up or to even think about contemporary issues without touching too much of an experiential nerve.
I think this explains my fascination with two samplings of TV and film this week set in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The first three episodes of the fifth and final season of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and the Turner Classic Movies Festival showing of the film version of Bye Bye Birdie, which began with a live on-site interview with its still very much alive triple-threat star, Ann-Margret.
Thanks TCM and Amy Sherman-Palladino & Co. for making these trying times fabulous and fun while softening the blow, via your use of full flashy color, that life has never been, nor ever will be, consistently fair.
See, it’s not that either that series or movie don’t address the issues of their day. It’s that they do it in a way that I can take right now. They engulf me in somebody else’s baggage and allow me to drift off to another time that reminds me of what it must have been like before there were Orange ex-presidents, rampant assassinations, especially school assassinations, and a strange aversion to network prime time variety shows on television.
Full Confession: The fast-paced, delicious world of former NYC housewife and now aspiring comic Midge Maisel is not totally foreign to me. My family didn’t have nearly as much money as hers but I was close to the age of her youngest kid. Also, the incessant, fast-paced shreying (Note: Yelling in Yiddish) and whining in her household is not a tempo or type of patter unfamiliar.
But Midge’s world is a Technicolor interpretation of something familiar, backed by a soundtrack of period singers crooning recognizable tunes from the great American songbook, that is told with wit, creativity and thoughtful integrity. It’s out of life the way any screwball-styled comedy is yet at the same time it refuses to steer clear of the human frailties of its characters or totally let them off the hook for their actions or reactions.
In this 1950s/early 1960s world men can rule women for only so long before they bite back and win. The children of neglectful parents also get to have their say, as do other discounted, marginalized people who have been forced to stand on the sidelines in the past. In this world, it pays to be a little strange, a little off, and also a lot culturally Jewish, and perhaps that is why I like it as much as I do. Or perhaps it’s merely that it takes place in a time that is a gauzy idea I barely recall.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s simply funny, inventive and in its final season. Once inventors of top notch series that haven’t stayed too long decide on their end point, they do some of their most satisfying, if not best, work. This was the case with Mad Men, another set in that era, and so far seems the case here.
It costs us nothing to see Midge go out as a star and will give us infinite pleasure as we watch her stumble over every living thing in her way to get there. Her life clearly won’t be without consequences, if the first three episodes of season five are any indication, but when you get to be funny and sass back the jerks while some of the best music ever made plays in the background, how bad can your life, or ours, really be?
At almost 82 years old, Ann-Margret has had quite a life. But it’s the present and her declaration that she has as much energy as she’s ever had that she claims keeps her going. This could account for why she’s recorded an album of classic rock ‘n roll tunes, Ann-Margret: Born to Be Wild, that’s now available to download or to purchase on Amazon. Or why when she confesses to an audience of film lovers at a movie theatre in Hollywood on a Saturday afternoon that there is the me you see here, and the me you don’t see with all this….energeeeeeeeee, and nearly jumps out of her demure sitting stance while doing it, that we absolutely believe her.
The thing about Ann-Margret is that she’s always been a bundle of energy and honesty. You can see it in her breakthrough lead role in 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie as well as her Oscar-nominated work in such films as Carnal Knowledge (1971) and Tommy (1975).
In Bye Bye Birdie, set in the late 1950s, she plays a teenager picked to give a symbolic kiss to singing star Conrad Birdie, a fictionalized version of Elvis Presley, before he goes into the military.
The movie musical, based on the hit Broadway show, embraces a somewhat cartoonish, larger than life comedic tone, but the sensuality and sincerity of her scenes and dance moves still electrify the screen and bring us back to a fictional moment in time when the drafting of a teen idol into the military was billed as the principal concern of teenagers (okay, mostly young female teens) in this country.
Would that it was ever so and nice to remember it actually was partly true, especially these days.
There are some politically incorrect moments in the film by today’s standards and its view of America was at best a fictionalized construction of the era that would soon get deconstructed by the end of the 1960s. But I was barely alive in 1958, the year it was set, and there is plenty to see and read from that time that balances what this type of movie shows us.
Aside from Dick Van Dyke at some of his singing and dancing best (Note: Do NOT think or say a bad word about one of my personal faves) it also gives us a joyful look at a more innocent moment in the American story. That would be an era where a parents’ version of wild offspring involved teenagers staying out late, dying their hair and maybe, well, riding a motorcycle.
Much like Ann-Margret did onscreen back then and still does to this day in real life.
Can you imagine?
Well, you don’t have to because that’s what movies like this are for. To not take ourselves so seriously that we fail to recognize that hypersexual singing stars and kids who play dress up as something other than they are is just camp.
And at the end of the day it isn’t camp that is dangerous for kids and teenagers. The real danger lies in the retribution that adults heap on their kids when they do what every generation does with camp at their age – enjoy it.