Rappaport, Mark: Director–Rock Hudson Home Videos, From the Journals of Jean Seberg

A distinctly gay sensibility characterized the 1970s work of John Waters, and it is also the signature, 20 years later, of Marc Rappaport, a pop sociologist who’s made fictional film biographies his specialized genre. Rappaport’s meditations on life, art, and Hollywood have defied Public TV’s earnest docudramas as well as Hollywood’s more conventional biopictures. His work represents a shrewd blend of fiction, biography, and cultural analysis, looking afresh at movies with detached cynicism. Rappaport’s perceptive explorations regard pop culture as an embattled field open to deconstruction and multiple, contradictory readings.

In the late 1980s, Rappaport came down with a chronic fatigue syndrome, and, since going on location became impossible, he had “to reinvent” himself–fictional biographies became the solution. Rappaport discovered the world of videotape, which made it possible to make movies much less expensively. Influenced by Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema, a personal film-essay-like history from a specific perspective, Rappaport reexamines American film with a critical theory that “puts everything up for grabs.” This resulted in two fascinating film-meditations, Rock Hudson’s Home Videos (1992) and From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995).

Rock Hudson’s Home Videos

In the savvy compilation Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, actor Eric Farr poses beside cutouts of Rock Hudson, supplying the late actor’s inner voice. “Who can look at my movies the same way ever again” the fictional Rock says. Hudson’s films come under a caustic gaze that dissects the latent content of his screen persona.

Rappaport’s central assertion is that the star’s hidden homosexuality was an open secret, and that his romantic leading man image always had a sly, knowing side to it. “It’s not like it wasn’t up there on the screen, if you watched carefully,” Rock says. Showing the actor’s split personality–“Dr. Macho Jekyll and Mr. Homo Hyde”–Rappaport uses Hudson’s own words from various biographies, constructing the persona of a celebrity liberated by death.

Innocent-seeming situations and relationships between Hudson and his leading ladies are revisited with a new interpretation that exposes their repressive conventions. “I haven’t any wife,” Hudson’s hero explains to Elizabeth Taylor in Giant, “I live with my sister.” And when Doris Day asks why he can’t marry, he replies that “it’s the kind of thing a man doesn’t discuss with a nice woman.” In Written on the Wind, a sultry Dorothy Malone eyes Hudson knowingly, then says, “There’s only so much a woman can do, and no more.”

Rappaport begins with Hudson’s infatuation with actor Jon Hall (Hurricane), followed by his Douglas Sirk melodramas and the comedies with Doris Day and Tony Randall. Says fictional Rock of Randall: “Such a preening, prissy, neurotic nerd, my sexuality is never called into question.” Scenes in Hudson’s movies show him engaged in stereotypically gay behavior in order to fool Doris Day into thinking he is no lady-killer–“doing my shy homo routine to get Doris to seduce me.” Several characters played by Hudson were devoted to their mothers and showed interest in recipes and cooking.

Rappaport surveys Hudson from his big-screen Don Juan image to his real-life AIDS patient in the 1980s. He starts with the knowledge of a lie–the heterosexual image Hudson embodied in 1950s movies–and proceeds with deconstructing their farcical plots. As critic Armond White observed, Rappaport undermines their premises through inference, implication, and innuendo that make his cleverly selected clips more than hagiography. A remarkable sequence of interrupted kisses between Hudson and his leading ladies (Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Syd Charisse, Angie Dickinson, Dorothy Malone), shows disgust on Hudson’s face.

Rappaport’s homage represents an exchange between the cultural heritage that defines our dreams and a postmodern consciousness compelled to deride them. Farr’s narration maintains distance between the charade that created a “heterosexual” idol and the truth about a successful actor forced to deny his true self. The result is a more objective inspection, imbued with ambivalence toward an embarrassed artist. Indeed, it’s no longer possible to watch Pillow Talk–or any Hudson film–as just simple entertaining comedies, without bringing knowledge of his homosexuality; audiences will never be that innocent again.

From the Journals of Jean Seberg

When Rappaport cast Mary Beth Hurt as Jean Seberg in From the Journals of Jean Seberg, he didn’t know she was born in Seberg’s own town, Marshmallows, Iowa. He then learned that Seberg was Hurt’s her babysitter and their families were friends. In close-cropped hair and a T-shirt similar to the one Seberg made famous in Breathless, Hurt narrates the film in an effort to explore the meaning of the star’s life. A girl with an accent as flat as her town’s fields (and acting ability to match), Seberg was plucked out of a pool of 18,000 hopefuls and groomed for stardom. Whether it was luck or coincidence, Seberg appeared in some interesting films: Saint Joan, Bonjour Tristesse, Breathless. But Seberg never caught up to her stardom, which she herself perceived as unwarranted.

“It’s called showbusiness,” says Hurt in her narration, “it’s not called show art,” stressing Hollywood as a treacherous place for its front-line practitioners, the actors. As numerous beautiful stars have been degraded onscreen by their filmmaker-husbands, Rappaport throws into the mix Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, contemporaries of Seberg’s who, like her, began in bimbo parts in films directed by their spouses. All three actresses became political activists, yet Fonda and Redgrave survived and Seberg did not. Seberg’s career curse began with Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan, which has developed an afterlife among film cognoscenti. While shooting the climactic burning a the stake scene, the actress caught fire, but the notoriously sadistic director was apparently thrilled with the cinema-verite accident.

Hudson’s life derailed with his death of AIDS at the age of 59; Seberg’s, with her suicide at 40. In fairly convincing fashion, Rappaport finds premonitions of both tragic endings early in their lives. Seberg’s support of the Black Panthers made her prey to investigations by J. Edgar Hoover (The F.B.I. director had a vendetta against the Panthers), at least partly caused her downward spiral and suicide in a car parked on a Parisian street.

Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who wrote Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, a fictionalized account of his affair with Seberg, thinks Rappaport’s films are more illuminating than documentaries: “Fiction is closer to life, because it realizes that life is full of paradoxes. This is a work of imagination about a ghost. A dead woman is speaking, and how do you speak from the grave” Rejecting the notion of “sacrosanct biography,” Rappaport is unapologetic about putting personal thoughts into the narration.

Asked where he had found Seberg’s journals, he wittily said, “The same place where Charles Dickens found David Copperfield’s.” For him, biography is not about fact, but “a collection of what you found, or didn’t find out, and how you put together what you found out.” He allowed that viewers may question his interpretation of the events, but they can’t question his “evidence”–the film clips themselves.