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The diva in decline.

Sometime in early adolescence, I acquired, while living in the very heart of Appalachia -- a land of lazy southern drawls -- a British accent. No one around me had a British accent. My father was from Chicago Heights, my mother from Braggadocio, Missouri, and my peers were budding good old boys whose fathers drove tractors and pickup trucks and spoke in an unmusical twang that I, a pompous fop, found distinctly undignified. Given the hearty, blue-collar community in which I grew up, the origin of my stilted style of delivery remained a complete mystery to me until, as an adult, I began to watch old movies. Over and over again in the voices of film divas as varied as Joan Crawford and Tallulah Bankhead, I heard the echoes of my own voice, the affected patrician accents of characters who conversed in a manufactured Hollywood idiom meant to suggest refinement and good breeding. Grace Kelly in Rear Window, Bette Davis in Mr. Skeffington, even Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.

The influence of Hollywood and its stars was so pervasive among young homosexuals like myself that it insinuated itself into our voices, weakening the grip of our regional accents and leaving in their place the artificial language of an imaginary elite -- a type of English heard only in the back lots of MGM and Twentieth Century Fox. To this day I have not succeeded in exorcising Joan, Bette, and Grace from my vocal cords.

This strange act of ventriloquism represents the highest form of diva worship and is the direct outcome of my perception in my youth that, as a homosexual, I did not belong in the community in which I lived, that I was different, a castaway from somewhere else, somewhere better, more elegant, more refined, a little Lord Fauntleroy marooned in the wilderness. In my unconscious imitation of the great film stars, I was seeking to demonstrate my separateness, to show others how out of place I felt, and, moreover, to fight back against the hostility I sensed in the homophobic, redneck world around me by belittling its crudeness through displays of my own polish and sophistication.

I was not attracted to Hollywood stars because of their femininity, nor did my admiration of them reflect a burning desire to be a woman, as the homosexual's fascination with actresses is usually explained (as if diva worship were simply a ridiculous waste product of gender conflicts). For me and for other gay men growing up before the gay-rights movement, our love of Hollywood was an expression not of flamboyant effeminacy but, in a very literal sense, of swaggering machismo.

Despite appearances to the contrary, diva worship is in every respect as unfeminine as football. It is a bone-crushing spectator sport in which one watches the triumph of feminine wiles over masculine Wills, of a voluptuous woman single-handedly mowing down a line of hulking quarterbacks who fall dead at her feet, as in Double Indemnity, where Barbara Stanwyck plays a scheming femme fatale who brutally murders her husband and then dumps his lifeless body from a moving train in order to collect his insurance, or in Dead Ringer, where Bette Davis watches calmly as her dog lunges for the throat of her gigolo boyfriend.

Before gay liberation, homosexuals exploited these cold-blooded, manipulative figures to overcome the pervasive sense of powerlessness they experienced as a vilified minority. They modeled themselves on the appealing image of the thick-skinned androgyne, a distinctly militaristic figure who, with a suggestive leer and a deflating wisecrack, triumphed over the indignities of daily life.

Quite by accident, then, the diva provided the psychological model for gay militancy. When drag queens fought back at Stonewall, chances are that what they had on their minds was the shameless chutzpah of their film icons. Shit-kicking amazons in sequins, ermine, and lame became so integral to the homosexual self-image that they helped gays tap hidden reservoirs of masculinity and look at themselves as something more than perpetual victims, despicable pansies too weak to defend themselves from the brutality of the police.

Irony was always present in gays, involvement with celebrities, partly because of the homosexual's sly awareness that he was misusing something as naive and wholesome as popular culture, with its Kansas-bred Dorothys and its Norman Rockwell happy endings, to reinforce something as illicit and underground as his solidarity with other homosexuals. As time went on, however, the note of facetiousness implicit in many gay men's treatment of Hollywood became louder and louder, until the wry smile of camp became the cackling shriek of the man who could no longer take seriously the divas he once adored. By the 1980s and '90s, the pantheon of immortals, while still treated reverently by many gay men, had become fair game for ridicule, as when New York drag queens commemorated the 1981 release of Mommie Dearest by dressing up as Joan Crawford and kicking life-size effigies of her daughter, Christina, up and down Christopher Street.

One of the reasons for the change from idolatry to ridicule, from Joan Crawford as bewitching siren to Joan Crawford as ax-wielding, child-beating, lesbian drunk, is that in the minds of younger homosexuals the diva came to be perceived as an outmoded icon, a symbol of an oppressed early stage in gay culture. While gays are still obsessed with celebrities (although primarily as a political force, a P.R. tool for promoting "visibility"), young gay men no longer need diva worship as a source of empowerment and community. Quite simply, we outgrew our idols, who could not keep pace with our own political development.

As a result, divas have been retired as political vehicles and consigned to a museum of gay kitsch. The temple of celebrity worship was pillaged and defiled, and the sacred vestments became dresses for drag shows, with gay men wearing the girlish ponytails and clown-white makeup of the ravaged Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or wrapping themselves in the muumuus of Shelley Winters. This new fascination with the diva as kitsch, a laughingstock, a reptile in a dress who cussed like a trooper and threw drunken tantrums in public places, was the result not only of gays, increasing social power but of the very nature of glamour and the medium of film itself.

As embodied in the great actresses, glamour was meant to seem immortal and changeless, a state of effortless perfection. In the course of the most catastrophic events, the celebrity's makeup and coiffure remained as stunning as if she had just stepped out of a beauty parlor, no matter how many natural disasters she rode through unscathed, how many burning buildings collapsed around her as she fled, or how many hired hit men chased her breathlessly through the streets as she skipped along like a triathlete on stiletto heels. It was the actress's superciliousness, her indifference to what was happening around her, that appealed so strongly to gay men.

In real life, however, the women on whom gay men modeled their internal divas were unable to live up to these cruel standards of perfection. Because glamorous actresses attempted to seem indestructible, they were plagued by bathos, by the ever-present danger of mess, by the threat of accidents the slip of a foot, the split of a seam, spills, stains -- but, most important, by the inevitability of old age. The drunken Dietrich, tottering on high heels, fell face-first into the orchestra pit during at least two of her concerts, while Bette Davis's wig fell off when she was carted away, plastered, from a ceremony at which she was accepting an award. Judy Garland forgot the lyrics to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and, stoned out of her mind during one of her concerts, belted out "San Francisco" while the orchestra played "Chicago."

Indeed, the very camera that exalted these women was also the agent of their downfall. A power intrinsic to the medium of film --its ability to record the ravages of time -- created an essential element of modem homosexual camp: its obsession with decay, decomposition, and decrepitude. By the 1950s the careers of Dietrich, Crawford, Davis, and Hayworth were essentially over. But -- and herein lies the secret ingredient of gay men's recipe for camp -- long after these idols, reputations had begun to decline, the cameras kept rolling so that these sex goddesses turned into withered hags before our very eyes, shriveling up into mummies as they fought tooth and nail to revive their waning careers, finally sinking into the unfathomable depths of B-grade horror flicks, playing ax-murderesses and psychotic forgotten stars. And then, with the advent of television, the broadcast of old movies drove the final nails into their coffins@ gay men were suddenly able to see, virtually side by side, what these women once were and what they had become, watching one night a glamorous Bette Davis at the height of her career in The Letter and the next a battered old crone in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Without the late show, there is no camp, for camp is about the death of glamour, about the shattering of the sacrosanct illusion of youth and invulnerability, about knocking the idol off her pedestal and dragging her through the mud, subjecting her decrepitude to the same scrutiny to which the medium of film once subjected her beauty. In the New York drag festival Wigstock, celebrity desecration figures so prominently that the whole spectacle often degenerates into a funeral in honor of the dead diva, who is paraded around by ghoulish drag-queen pallbearers, by men dressed up as Agnes Moorehead after she breaks her neck in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, or Psycho's Janet Leigh mauled by "Mother."

Out of a sense of disillusionment, homosexuals have created a macabre form of ethnic humor in which they dance on their former role models, graves (this is sometimes nearly literal; the drag performer known as Dead Marilyn impersonates a cadaverous Marilyn Monroe exhumed from her crypt, her body scarred with the bloody gashes of her autopsy). In so doing, they relive again and again the hilarious realization that the diva was not a goddess, that she was flesh and blood, that she got fat just like they did, that she got wrinkled just like they did, that she had a miserable life and crippling diseases and financial crises and even died just like they did, but with one major difference: in the case of the diva, the press was there to get it all down, to record every pratfall and black eye and lesbian affair and drug overdose and nose job and trip to the fat farm.

The irreverent humor of the drag queen -- dressed up as a trembling Katharine Hepburn, a dazed Peggy Lee in a scarf and black shades, or a haggard Tippi Hedren in The Birds, her teased-up wig a nest of carnivorous sparrows and sea gulls -- represents the last gasp of idol worship in a secular age, the passing of a mode of religious experience, whose funeral gay men celebrate with delightfully deranged fervor. Camp is the satirical requiem of the heathen fetishist who has lost faith in his idol, the final rite of a religion that has outlived its usefulness.
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Title Annotation:excerpt from 'The Death of Camp,' from Fall 1996 issue of Salmagundi; personal narrative on homosexuality and worship of movie stars
Author:Harris, Daniel
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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