From Norma Desmond to Helmut Berger, a continuum of alluring decay.
Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte took the concept of faded glamour explicitly into the realm of the Gothic, particularly with the aid of Bette Davis’ acting and makeup. She was made up to look as though her face were a mask, her lips mercilessly converted into two red slashes. Yet in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, her character is fundamentally a confused victim. Davis’ vanished beauty only adds to the pathos of the storyline.
John Waters and Divine were obviously watching these films. I suspect Andy Warhol and his Superstars were as well. Warhol’s Chelsea Girls cast included people with the beauty and charisma to become genuine stars (such as Nico, who did eventually became an eccentric rock singer with a cult following) alongside abrasive jerks who couldn’t stop singing the praises of hard drugs (such as Ondine). Warhol’s definition of glamour was far more open than Hollywood’s, and his protégé Paul Morrissey would go on to make films cast with genuine transgender women. Despite his vaunted conservatism, Morrissey was far more liberal in that regard than Hollywood remains today.
Waters and Divine made films about the hard path towards fame; she literally became a star by eating shit. In Waters’ most perceptive film, Female Trouble, Divine follows a road of violence on the way to stardom. In an era where serial killers get breathless profiles on numerous cable channels, Waters, who befriended several members of the Manson family, saw the future and realized that glamour was about to move towards Davis’ late roles, even towards Ondine. Divine’s outrageous makeup, which outdoes even the most bizarre looks from the glam and punk-rock movements, looks like an extension of Davis’ visage in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
When Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens was released in 1976, it was frequently chastised for breaking the rules of documentary ethics. Now it’s considered a classic. Upon its DVD release and recent theatrical re-release, Grey Gardens frequently earned comparisons to Waters. Back in 1976, few people would have taken that as a compliment. Although “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” (both women’s legal names were Edith Beale) lived in such squalor that they almost got evicted in 1972, they saw themselves as glamorous. One reason for this was their connection to the Kennedy family; both women were relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who helped them renovate Grey Gardens, a Long Island estate, and facilitated their stay there). Another reason is that they’re both performers. Grey Gardens is filled with their renditions of pop standards like Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” They’re living in a delusional world, but the film respects that.
I wonder what its critics would make of Andreas Horvath’s 2015 documentary Helmut Berger, Actor, which opens and closes with scenes of its subject masturbating. Helmut Berger, Actor concentrates on the titular Austrian performer, who was seventy at the time of filming. At his peak in the 1970s, Berger was a symbol of Euro-decadence, known for his roles in films like Luchino Visconti’s kinky Nazifest The Damned. He now claims that the Visconti family ripped him off, although the Italian director was his lover during his peak of fame; presumably Berger was wealthy once, but he now lives in a two-room apartment in a suburb of Salzburg. Certainly he was extremely handsome once, but despite a facial peel depicted in Helmut Berger, Actor, his age is showing. Nonetheless his sex drive is as strong as ever. At one point, Horvath cuts from his interview with Berger to a close-up of a packet of Cialis. Berger claims that in the ’70s he had four threesomes a day.
Berger is extremely bitter about the film industry (he dishes out scandalous gossip about Bernardo Bertolucci and his “lesbian wife”), yet he has filled his apartment with photos of himself in better days. He sees the industry as fundamentally destructive, yet brags about trips to Cannes, St. Tropez, and Italy. Horvath is a relatively innocent outsider; as a documentarian, he’s theoretically not in the business of glamorizing his subjects.
But Berger still wants to be glamorized. More than that, he claims he’s fallen in love with his director and wants to have sex with him. In the film’s final scene, he tries to talk Horvath into letting him give the director a hand job. Helmut Berger, Actor emphasizes the sexual nature of stardom, and how humiliating it can be for someone who’s used to coasting on his looks to have them dissipate. Berger isn’t sympathetic, he’s creepy. David Bowie foresaw him in his 1973 song “Cracked Actor,” which describes a washed-up actor ogling young boys.
In 2017, people want to be famous for the sake of fame itself, not necessarily because they have acting or musical skill, even though there’s no shortage of cautionary tales—be they as sublime as Sunset Boulevard or as dubious as Celebrity Rehab—about its dangers. That’s a cliché, but a true one. Wilder, Waters, and the Maysles brothers have shown the pitfalls of that lust for the spotlight. Helmut Berger, Actor goes one step further, depicting a documentary subject lusting for his director. Waters loves this film, and it’s not hard to see why. As much as Horvath and Berger scream at each other, it gives the cracked actor a chance to tell his side of the story.
HELMUT BERGER, ACTOR has its New York premiere at the Museum of the Moving Image's First Look Festival, Saturday, January 14, 2017.