For over a year I have been gathering data about Carole Landis in preparation for a book that I await only family data to begin writing. After watching all her films, viewing hundreds of her photographs, and reading the few significant things written about her as well as most of the insignificant ones, I know Carole very well–on the surface. Carole wrote a good deal more for publication than most movie people; how many of us publish a book, albeit ghost-written, at 25? But her writings resemble what her conversations must have been; breezy, witty, guardedly superficial, not because Carole was herself superficial, but because she never found an outlet, save in her sister and a very few friendships–certainly not her husbands!–for what was in the depth of her soul. I doubt if her diaries, did they still exist, would reveal much more. How does one discover what is in the depth of Carole’s, or of anyone’s soul? What more can I do than begin at the beginning and end at the end, able sometimes to cite her words, at others only to describe her actions, or else presuming to invent words to go with these actions, as though one had the right to make another human being into a literary character?
Despite the easy cliché that appearances are deceiving, the best way to show who Carole is by showing her. At one point early in this project a friend suggested I write a coffee-table book with glossy pictures dominating the text. He later changed his mind, but he was on the right track. Carole gives proof, living proof, that the human image reveals human truth, that representation is rooted in presence. Few things seem more different than a beautiful woman and a theory of human origin, yet Carole is the exemplary incarnation of the originary paradox: desire’s dependency on, and denial of, representation. It is sad that all we have left of Carole are representations; but even the beauty of a living being is a mediated experience. We should not call a woman beautiful unless we feel called upon to look at her as if at a picture, as an object of worldly desire enshrined within the aura of the sacred. The beautiful object, human or not, withholds itself from our desire, maintaining its integrity as an object for contemplation rather than possession (Kant’s “disinterest”). Because the moment of esthetic contemplation is not a “behavior,” it does not dictate whatever action may follow it, from aggression to flight, from worship to insult.
Aware that beauty withholds itself, the beauties of Hollywood’s glamour age were led to capitalize this withholding by embodying it as attitude–a strategy that has become only more insistent in the era of the pout that began in the fifties with Brigitte Bardot and is today far from ended. Carole’s sexual attractiveness was too powerful to dissemble or coquettishly withhold. At her death some called her the original “sweater girl,” but although Carole’s figure was far more spectacular, arguably Hollywood’s most beautiful ever, the term was created for Lana Turner, a studio-named and -manufactured beauty, a good-bad girl all the way to middle age while Carole was from the beginning a woman. Neither tease nor femme fatale, Carole never hoarded her beauty to increase its value–understanding that because it is representation that withholds, she herself has no need to, that, on the contrary, the situation of public beauty, beauty en représentation, allows her to give herself generously to all as she cannot in real life. It was this understanding that prepared her to perform selflessly for soldiers during the war. The withholding that belongs to the form of representation permits her to offer herself to others as a gift of love, in the timeless present of what some call the immortality of the soul. As with her other good deeds, Carole never sought compensation or recognition for this greatest gift of all. But her uncalculating generosity, although compatible with the esthetic of photographic and even filmic representation, stood in contradiction with film’s narrative closure and the commercial culture it supported.
One might think that the promotion of physical beauty requires no explanation; if “sex sells,” then the sexier the better. But there is a history of beauty as of everything else, and Carole emerged at just the time and place in which sexual beauty received its most powerful expression–a “good fortune” that unfortunately did not prove compatible with Hollywood’s requirements for stardom. There was just enough ambiguity in the situation to allow for the miracle of Carole’s public presence, and a miracle it was, however tawdry the roles to which Carole was confined by the studios.
Facile Hollywood cynicism, whether it reduces Carole to “a lovely torso, not an actress” (Time obituary, July 19, 1948), or on the contrary, condemns the studios for the meretricious callousness that destroyed so many “Babylon women” or “fallen angels” (Lupe Velez, Marie McDonald, Maria Montez, Barbara Payton, Inger Stevens, Jean Seberg, Linda Darnell, and of course, Marilyn Monroe), misses the point, as it always does. Because human beings are inherently resentful, the world is not a perfect place, but their resentment is the source of the very notion of perfection. When we look at Carole in photograph or film, we cannot admire her unique beauty without acknowledging Hollywood’s indispensable role in its creation. As the old philosophical saw has it, a tree that falls in the forest doesn’t make a noise if there is no one around to hear it. Frances Ridste the San Bernardino housewife could not be publicly beautiful; glamour requires publicity, with all the trappings of clothing, makeup, lighting and the rest that the production of public effect justifies.
My affinity with Carole not only grants me the degree of psychological identification necessary to be able to write about her, it provides a link between the trivial contingencies of time, place, and personality and the seemingly outrageous generality of my own theoretical pretensions. My acquaintance with Carole, this woman so wondrously different from myself, gives me a confirming hint of the mysterious emergence of spirit from matter, of transcendence from immanence. I need not experience first-hand the mise-en-scène that prepares the belle victime for the sacrifice; Carole is herself my mise-en-scène.
I understand and accept Carole’s success only because I share her failure, although academic tenure, and the domestic happiness that always eluded one who constantly overwhelmed reciprocity, make drastic solutions unnecessary. Carole failed in Hollywood not because she was a “bad actress,” but because her presence was too extraordinary for the actor’s mask. All movie stars play themselves, but Carole’s self was compatible only with her own story. Carole played Carole most explicitly in two films: I Wake up Screaming and The Powers Girl. In the first, she is an ambitious New York waitress who wins a screen test in Hollywood but is sacrificed before she can leave, and before the film begins, to the desire of all the male characters, most memorably the investigating detective (played by Laird Cregar), whose apartment walls, not unlike my own, are covered with pictures of Carole (the protagonist, Victor Mature, is falsely accused of her death because he alone is relatively indifferent to her charms). Carole’s flashback image, including a filmed song, dominates the film, to the real-life discomfiture of Betty Grable, its purported star. This minor 1941 film noir was the high point of Carole’s career. A year later, her role in The Powers Girl is a caricature of the previous one. Carole’s ambition, her beauty, even her hairdo are turned to ridicule in this nasty comedy of which she is the eponymous, yet third-billed, anti-heroine. The only story Carole could have won an Oscar for is one she could not have made: The Tragedy of Carole Landis, the story of “the most beautiful girl in the world,” too magnificently, generously present for the deferral required by fiction.
Carole was so beautiful that she never developed a sense of strategy. She freely admitted being “brazen” at the start of her film career; “Hollywood didn’t discover me,” she said, “I discovered it.” Carole was breezily confident that she could get herself noticed wherever she went, then succeed through talent, intelligence, and hard work. Learning about Carole makes me realize that I too lack a strategy in life, that my reliance on my “one big idea,” like Carole’s on her beauty, has led me to treat the details of professional life as tactical problems to be dealt with as they arise rather than elements of a long-term plan. Our professional standing is similar; modestly successful but never chosen for the big roles. Carole and I share the same constitutional incapacity for planning to gain and maintain power, the same conviction, however often belied by experience, that our uniqueness makes strategy unnecessary. The “beauty” of my one big idea owes its force to this lack of strategy, as does the unifying grace behind the multiple modes in which Carole revealed herself to us. Carole never needed to cultivate her image; she was beautiful in any context, and her frequent changes in look and hairstyle testify to her self-confident unconcern for preserving an outward formula of beauty. Carole couldn’t be bothered with fostering illusion; she knew her reality would always suffice. If she, or I, were otherwise, we would lose our uncompromising absoluteness.
Yet no one could be more different than Carole from myself. The rightness of my ideas is guaranteed only by their internal logic, whereas Carole’s appeal is rooted deep in the human brain. Whatever the mediations of resentment that move us back to the “democratic” norm, Carole’s exceptional beauty is an unforgettable demonstration that qualitative, transcendental difference is inherent, originary quality of the human.
It reconciles me to mortality to know not only that Carole existed, but that traces of her public beauty have been preserved for posterity. A friend of mine who, I am proud to say, first became acquainted with Carole through my website, has vowed to leave flowers on her grave every January 1 for the rest of his life. If my book fulfills its purpose, there will forever be fresh flowers on Carole’s memory.