Stories We’re Told
By Howard Hampton
On being born under a Hollywood sign
When Richard Rush spoke of why it took so long to get his 1980 film The Stunt Man made, he invoked the reluctance of studios back then to greenlight anything involving the behind-the-scenes side of moviemaking. The suits were convinced that audiences either weren’t interested or—more superstitiously, more tellingly—that they would be disillusioned by being shown how the ostensible magic was manufactured. But for some, the truest romance of cinema resided in that loose interchange between the teeming life behind the camera and the imaginative worlds spread out in front of it.
Movies are fabrications I’ve always tended to take very personally. Then again, I was born in their shadows, or at least that’s how it always seemed to me. They weren’t exclusively objets d’art or entertainments du jour, but more like two-way streets of dreams, portals to experience. Not just the expensive vicarious kind, but conduits to those stray uncanny moments of recognition, self-discovery, and multiplied personalities that define us—the secret life or lives hidden behind façades of the normal and the ordinary. Their personal meanings weren’t merely inscribed in Grauman’s cement by stars, auteurs, and title-credited artisans, but brought to fruition or rescued from total ruination by entire platoons of bit players, stunt people, production assistants, gaffers, focus pullers, and all the rest whose footprints mostly disappeared in the quicksand of history.
My father—also named Howard Hampton—was a member of this troupe: a stunt man and extra in the Fifties whose specialty was riding horses and falling off of them. (The Western stampede in movies and on television served as a veritable WPA for equestrian roughnecks.) As a child, in lieu of fairy tales (and before I ever saw an actual movie), I was captivated by his stories of being James Mason’s stunt double in Prince Valiant, of having a big toe broken by Victor Mature in 1953’s The Robe (or maybe it was Demetrius and the Gladiators—swords, sandals, and a too-too-solid prop door were involved), of hanging out with Audie Murphy’s gang on The Wild and the Innocent. As he turned the pages of his hefty scrapbook-portfolio, he flashed by as a soldier in the crowd at the finale of White Christmas, a sailor in the bowels of Sam Fuller’s Hell and High Water; he even got a few lines in the far less memorable naval saga Submarine Seahawk. Thus was the lore of Hollywood passed down at his knee, a montage of names, places, and legends, at once concrete and absolutely fanciful, an oral docudrama spun into a fable of inflated, anything-goes life, a bottomless soliloquy of wine, women, and what could have, should have, might have been.
There was more to come: raw accounts of his marriages (my mother was his sixth marriage but fifth wife: he married number two twice) and his purported affairs with Ava Gardner and Dorothy Dandridge, phantasmagorical tales of Hollywood tawdriness and of running guns from Mexico to Central America, eventually signing on to be Errol Flynn’s double in the fiasco with the great grind-house title Cuban Rebel Girls. Shot while the revolution was in progress, Flynn supposedly caught the last plane out as Havana fell, while my father would be stranded and tossed into jail by the Fidelistas. Here the plot starts to get sticky, for even at a tender age I began to realize that Dad was not the most reliable narrator. What I can say with certainty is that he was a jack-of-all-trades dreamer with a theatrical twinkle and propensity for failure who left Hollywood for the Virgin Islands (little Howard would be born in St. Thomas in 1958) in hope of starting an underwater location studio there. (With Ivan Tors’s Sea Hunt series gearing up, it wasn’t necessarily a doomed idea.)
His knack for embellishment, conflating his life story with gossip and fantasy, was protean and impenetrable—if you had a dollar for every mook who claimed he’d slept with Gardner, you could Kickstart The Canyons II, but Dandridge was, if nothing else, an inspired touch. And who could really say for sure? It was a pastiche that had some basis in truth, even if Dad might have inserted himself into the stories like a sexual Zelig. My mother swore the Cuban tale was all true, and she was there—well, except for the bit about having her seduce the head of the secret police to secure his release, as though traveling alone to a chaotic post-revolution Havana to petition the American embassy for help wasn’t dramatic enough.
Decamping for the mainland afterwards, Dad had his first nervous breakdown in Florida circa 1962. This secured him a disability pension from the VA, on which we returned to the Virgin Islands the next year because, as he liked to crow, you could live like a king there on next to nothing. What followed was, for a 6-year-old, a carefree, aquatic idyll that made Flipper look like Bicycle Thieves—trackless days of snorkeling among the octopi and jellyfish, he and I swimming with the real, non-metaphorical barracudas when one of the bastards deigned to poke his ferocious snout out of the pristine coral. We abruptly split for the mountains and then deserts of Arizona however, so Dad could teach me to ride horses. There I would at last see my first movies: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (the 1966 feature version of the TV show) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which, like Thunderball when I caught up with it later, paled in comparison to where I’d come from: the underwater sequences seemed so stiff and inertly choreographed, the fish so tame, colorless, dull. And yet, that never mattered a bit. The cardboard-and-tinsel aspect was no impediment to my imagination, which eagerly latched onto those monsters of the deep, compensating for their inadequacy with an 8-year-old’s iron will to believe.
My childhood up to that point had taken place in a world of hyper-vivid nature that seemed intrinsically more cinematic than movies themselves. Yet here the three of us were, now occupying a small broken-down ranch in the aptly named locale of Skull Valley, miles from the nearest neighbor. In the long, hot nights, my father brandished his overstuffed scrapbook like a bible, reciting chapter and verse from the Book of Hollywood. He reeled off the names of the saints—Audie, Woody Strode, Widmark—like a defrocked evangelist. Maybe he just got tired of waiting for a sign, so one day he decided to make his own burning bush out of some rubbish next to the house. Half an hour, a can of gasoline, and a match later, the scrapbook and all the rest of our worldly possessions had gone the ashes-to-ashes route. He was later relocated to a VA psychiatric facility in Colorado, and my mother and I followed on a train—yet another picturesque adventure. We didn’t know it yet, but we had begun the trip back to Hollywood.
By 1968, we were in Los Angeles. My father hoped somehow to get back in the business, but his contacts had dried up and his friends had scattered. In the meantime, he had developed a full-blown bipolar illness with sporadic delusional episodes. My introduction to the road movie as a concept might have come during a trip through Nevada, when he became convinced Mom was some kind of CIA plant. He ditched her at a tiny truckstop and sped off with me down the highway, doing a nonstop Cassavetes-meets-Oliver-Stone monologue for five or six crazed hours until the Highway Patrol finally caught up with us. Funny thing is, I don’t recall ever feeling in real danger—it was more like an interminable screen test entirely for my benefit. If only he could have put the agitated highlights on a demo reel and gotten it to a producer or casting director, he might have found work. As what, I’m not sure: at 45, he was perhaps too old and weather-beaten to even play a heavy on Mannix. Westerns had run their course, and Alan Hale Jr. had cornered the “Skipper” market. His notions of launching some nautical TV series à la Gardner McKay’s show Adventures in Paradise—after enough drinks, he might hold forth on how McKay had stolen that idea, or maybe it was another, from him—were hopelessly antiquated. He was a stunt man out of time.
A contributing factor was the preposterous fact that he had returned to Hollywood to get back in the business, and then stopped going to the movies. Not even revivals. It was as if they had ceased production on his world in 1960 and he was silently boycotting the new regime, whatever that might be. There was no moral or aesthetic component to this, though I’m tempted to say it was the reaction of a spurned lover. Except that my dad wasn’t a movie lover per se—he loved the kinky social aspects of Hollywood, the hustlers’ hustles and the whores’ scorecards, and though he could hold forth on its Babylonian aspects for hours, he never seemed to get around to discussing the finished product.
Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine
His last chum from the old days was Vince Barnett, the pint-sized vaudevillian-turned-character-actor who had once been Paul Muni’s ditzy aide-de-camp in Scarface and Burt Lancaster’s rummy, moonstruck cellmate in The Killers, though his last big-screen credit would be as “Janitor” in Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. They hung out in the musty, ancient Masquers Club—a once-viable alternative to the Friars Club that had gone considerably downhill. That was the Hollywood I witnessed: a wax museum for men and women clutching their brush-with-glory memories like pensioners with their tarnished gold watches and cobwebbed trophies.
We were by then living off and on in an old vine-covered courtyard apartment building called the Villa Elaine (on Vine Street no less), in a ground-floor, two-story, one-bedroom apartment so architecturally surreal that it might have been designed by Man Ray. (It turned out that he actually had lived in one of the same units in the Forties.) Ensconced in a precarious domesticity that seemed as bifurcated as the Brooklyn apartment in The Honeymooners outfitted with Blue Velvet curtains, I was exposed to lots of close-quarter, alcohol-fueled behaviors and age-inappropriate information before I hit puberty (including one primal Lynch scene of being in the same room, ostensibly asleep, with my parents as they had violent sex). John Cassavetes could have been making a movie next door and we wouldn’t have noticed.
In fact, he probably was: around this time, in the early Seventies he shot bits of Minnie and Moskowitz at the Villa Elaine. It would be years till I saw my first Cassavetes picture, but when I eventually caught up with Faces, my reaction was a jaundiced been-there-seen-that flashback. I’d already encountered that mise en scène plenty of times. For instance, a suburban New Year’s Eve party, 1969/70, where I found myself cornered by a very drunk Barnett, who launched into an interminably fierce, maudlin monologue that even Seymour Cassel channeling the pulpiness of the original Killers could not have over-the-topped. As he went on and on about how I was a fine boy and a credit to my father and how he was going to send me to the Air Force Academy when I grew up, it was like being trapped in a bad film where the director refused to yell “cut.” I didn’t yet know from movies as such, but it started to dawn on me that this embarrassingly besotted exhibitionism was pure performance, crossing any lines between reality and pretense. Actors, I learned, love nothing better than to watch themselves acting; they can be their own best—and only real—audience.
A Woman Under the Influence
As I’ve gotten older, my feelings about Cassavetes have evolved into a more affectionate ambivalence—a love/exasperation dialogue in my head. All the quality time spent in the visiting areas of substandard mental hospitals taught me wariness when it came to the curative powers of psychodrama. Gauging the difference between revelatory ordinariness and performative affectation in A Woman Under the Influence, one might begin by noting how in any given five-minute span, Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk spin off a smorgasbord of emotive riffs: Leigh and Brando, Edith and Archie, Joan Blondell on acid and sputtering Wallace Beery, weary, aching, late-period Billie Holiday and Lester Young. A key thing about Cassavetes’ actors is that they were largely protean-prole, Thirties/Forties-type personalities working in a Sixties/Seventies milieu (Lynn Carlin in Faces being one terrific exception to this rule), incandescently oscillating between bitter humor, forced boisterousness, persuasive sentiment, and blunt repositionings on old Hollywood stratagems.
At times this worked beautifully: Rowlands in Gloria and Faces (not that she was ever less than fascinating to watch, even in train-wreck mode), Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. In other spots, the domineering effect of Cassavetes’ directorial relentlessness creates a veritable Samsonite landslide at the LAX luggage carousel. Besides his own personalized baggage, there was that of his actors, the characters, and the audience, all thrown up for grabs in a snorting, argumentative, rough-and-tumble atmosphere. Poor three-fifths-crazy Mabel is caught in A Woman Under the Influence’s cross-purposes, laboring under the burdens of illness and society as well Cassavetes’ determination to make her a springboard for Rowlands. I feel for her and can’t help thinking that the Best Actress and Director nominations the two of them earned were partially at her expense.
Another episode in my Hollywood education: one night my parents took a cab across town to do a little friendly socializing with Dad’s ex-wife Marilyn and her boyfriend. They couldn’t get a babysitter, so they dragged me along and stuck me in a back room as they commenced drinking and playing cards. When I eventually got restless and went to get something to drink, I came upon a classic pseudo-swinging-Sixties tableau, the four of them in their skivvies playing rowdy strip poker. My intrusion having dampened the mood, the party broke up and the boyfriend offered to drive us home. So the four of us squeezed into the cab of his pickup truck and set out. Soon we were in the middle of some ominously deserted, industrial-wasteland section of the city, and it became clear to my dad that this clown didn’t want the party to end. So, with me sitting next to the driver (and my mother pressed against the passenger door), Dad pulled out a six-inch pocketknife and, lunging over my towhead, pressed the blade against the driver’s neck. The pickup halted, but the driver still wouldn’t listen to reason. “Turn this fucking thing around and take us back or I’ll cut your fucking throat.” The guy was adamant, as if it were just a game and Dad/Mom were playing hard to get. She was quickly getting hysterical, I was trembling (my father didn’t seem to be bluffing), and for five minutes we sat there, the feeling getting uglier and more desperate by the second. Suddenly, the driver relented. My father withdrew the knife, and we proceeded back to the Villa Elaine uneventfully. When we arrived, Dad invited the scumbag in for a no-hard-feelings drink, and the evening ended as mundanely as it had begun.
Seen from a cinematic perspective, it could have been a Cassavetes face-off or a David Lynch nocturne. Looking back, it may explain why I’ve always felt totally at home inside Lynch’s close quarters: his universe felt like a preexisting condition, something passed down in my DNA. As a form of embellished, poeticized, feverish, but nonetheless recognizable reality, every millimeter was as invested in physical/emotional actualities and stark veracity as anything Cassavetes delivered. (Reverse angle: Cassavetes was as fully devoted to the archetypical and perversely idealized and innately nostalgic as Lynch. Good case for future study: A Woman Under the Influence compared with Inland Empire.) In Lynch’s world, the basic reciprocity between what’s typically construed as normal and what’s perceived as unreason becomes an expression of everyday duality. The sensationalistic aspects are ways of imagining trauma and desire, externalizing mutable, unstable experiences—initiations into that cryptic, irregular adult life I couldn’t fathom as a boy but was nonetheless drawn toward like an eager sleepwalker.
My father died abruptly in 1971, struck down by a heart attack, though afterwards the doctor reassured my mom he had two or three other conditions that would have killed him anyway. We stayed in the High Desert (the actual Inland Empire, where dad had recently rented a house and reclaimed his forsaken horses), and the movie floodgates opened. We went to everything in reach, first the second-run B-ish pictures at the El Rancho Theater in Victorville: Bronson (Chato’s Land, Red Sun), Vanishing Point, Redford’s string of downwardly mobile A-movies perched atop a tart undercoating of pre-indie disreputability, flakiness, unaccountability, or pseudo-mythic obstinacy (The Candidate, still his finest work, the agreeably insufferable Little Fauss and Big Halsy, the 13-year-old’s pipe dream Jeremiah Johnson, The Hot Rock). Not to mention Charley Varrick, California Split, the wonderfully terrible Zardoz. My favorite of all was Robert Culp’s Hickey & Boggs, a 1972 daylight noir so bleak and corrosive it was like a shot of battery acid stirred into a Raymond Chandler–Ross MacDonald Zombie. With a sketchy (plot-wise) but highly effective screenplay by Walter Hill, it delivered hands down the best visual record of low-rent, nihilist Los Angeles ever committed to film. With Culp and his I Spy partner Bill Cosby giving viscerally grungy performances, marinating in the smell of clothes that haven’t been changed in a week, it is the ultimate smog-saturated time-capsule of the Los Angeles that was. Within that architecture of ruin and dilapidated sprawl lay something else: lessons in the stoic allure of desperation and loss, in all their inescapable certainty.
Then at the Joshua Drive-In I saw a double bill that changed my life: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid with The Wild Bunch, my first clear intimation of art, and a further apotheosis of failure, defeat, and despair. From there, it was a short step to other domino-theory double features: Mom taking me to rereleases of the R-rated edit of A Clockwork Orange together with Straw Dogs. (There’s a Mother’s Day bill for the ages.) Woody Allen, Mel Brooks—she loved comedies. Shampoo—how the Other Side of Hollywood lived. Plus all the Grant-Bogart-Groucho-Orson movies you could find on TV to further a boy’s undoubtedly sentimental education in History, Social Studies, and Home Economics: The Lady Eve had all that in Barbara Stanwyck’s little finger alone. Were they escape routes or histories written by night? Tribal lore (Duck Soup), ancient mating customs (His Girl Friday, The Big Steal), secret handshakes (Touch of Evil)? Or search parties looking for scrapbooks of lost time…
I don’t recall exactly where or when I first saw The Lady from Shanghai, but pretzel-shaped plot aside, it has always struck a crazily nostalgic Late Show chord for me. Perhaps since there are no home movies of my parents, I imagine the world they inhabited and that I came out of in those early sail-boating scenes, before all the scheming and double-crossing kicks in. Contemplating this parallel universe of longing and its realization, with the young, cocksure Welles hovering around Rita Hayworth, the two of them dappled with beads of seawater and sweat, I see his camera drinking in her swimsuited beauty the way I’m sure my dad saw my mother back during their first Virgin Islands stay. (And before that, where 2 x 2 photos show her with dyed blond highlights, every inch the modern 1954 dame.) There’s more to the story, as there always is, but sometimes you just want to hold a moment in time and turn it over in your mind. “Movies,” Loudon Wainwright III once sang, spelling out the long and the short of it, “are a mother to me.” Or in my case, perhaps, sort of a father.