Saturday, September 6, 2008

Motherhood, Mediocrity, and Marjorie Morningstar [A Guest Post by Really Rosie]

[The third commenter on this recent post suggests that my blog makes of the Catholic Church "little more than a compensatory prize for the losers in life, at least the life they felt entitled to," and reminds me that "[t]he arts are for people with TALENT." I suspect that the losers to whom the commenter refers include me, and that the people with TALENT do not. I won't quarrel with her opinion, though I doubt she's familiar with my work as either a singer or a scholarly writer, but I do wonder who it is she believes the Catholic Church is, in fact, for.

At any rate, her provocative comment called to mind a conversation that Really Rosie and I have been having (much interrupted by our toddlers) since we first met, and I have asked Rosie to write a guest post about it. The post is long, but it's wonderfully engaging, much like Really Rosie herself. -- Pentimento]

When I was seventeen years old and facing a future that included attending an elite women’s college in New York City and then embracing what I hoped would be the life of a successful actress (filled with poverty and struggle at the beginning, yes, but ultimately leading to artistic fulfillment), my aunt gave me her favorite book and asked me to read it, because, she said, I reminded her of the main character. The book turned out to be Marjorie Morningstar, Herman Wouk’s 1955 bestseller about love and frustrated ambition (a scene from the 1958 film, starring Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly, appears above).

Marjorie Morgenstern, a bright, beautiful, and articulate Jewish girl living in 1930s New York, has ambitions that go beyond her parents’ dream that she marry well: she wants to be an actress. Calling herself “Marjorie Morningstar,” she does summer stock, goes on auditions rounds, and sits at the drugstore counter with the other girls, waiting to be discovered. Along the way, she meets Noel Airman, a songwriter and a cad, the antithesis of her parents’ hopes. It is an on-again, off-again romance. Determined to remain a virgin until marriage (preferably to him), she nevertheless abandons her good-girl mentality and her religious faith, becoming Noel’s mistress, yet still cannot convince him to marry her. By the end of the novel, she has neither an acting career nor Noel; rather, she has become a prematurely gray housewife in suburban Westchester, the mother of four, and an Orthodox Jew. Even more disturbingly, she also seems to have become a heavy drinker and to have forgotten her past. When her old friend Wally comes to visit, he tells her:

“This much you can be sure of, you’re a hell of a lot happier than Marjorie Morningstar could ever have been.” She turned and stared at me, and for a flash there was contact between us. Just for an instant, the old Margie was there in the blue eyes of Mrs. Schwartz. And she said, “Good God, do you remember that? You would. You and your steel-trap mind. I don’t believe I’ve thought of that name in a dozen years . . . Marjorie . . . Morningstar . . .” There was something extremely poignant in the way she drew out the syllables, and smiled.

The ending made me angry. I returned the book to my aunt and told her I hated it and would never be like Marjorie. A few years later, after college, I bought my own copy, re-read it while waiting in line at various open-call auditions, and again swore I would never end up like Marjorie. I was too ambitious, too talented, and I would never let myself be derailed by love.

So now I’ll tell you a little about my illustrious acting career. In my first professional touring gig, a children’s musical, I was hired to replace an actress who had left the show due to bronchitis. I was supposed to learn the show in two days and be ready to perform on the third. I realized when I got the script that it was a role for a belter and dancer, and I was a soprano and no dancer. But I was finally acting and getting paid for it, so I knew I had to learn the part. The schedule was grueling. We had to unload and assemble the set each day, do two to three shows one after the other, then break down and reload the set into the truck. After that, we drove the van and truck to the next venue, usually six to eight hours away, often in another state. By the time I was finally comfortable in the role I was thrust into, about a week and a half after I joined the show, I was sick. I had a fever of 104, and my coughing fits were so bad that I was afraid they would destroy my singing voice. I took some Vicks 44, then rode in the van half-awake and hallucinating about putting the set together. I remember reaching in front of me to grab a phantom hammer and pegs. Not long after that, the tour played my hometown. My entire family showed up to see me in my first professional role, and the sound engineer turned my mic to the highest level so they could actually hear me, since I could barely speak, much less sing. I gave that show my all, then was fired by the stage manager in the dressing room afterwards. I went home sadly with my parents and saw a doctor the next day. Diagnosis? Bronchitis. The costume was never washed between actors.

I could tell you about the two tours I did after that or the original musical about the life of Phillis Wheatley that was quite good, but never seen by most people, since it was performed way out in Queens. Or the wretched student films (I once played a fantasy woman who came out of a vending machine . . . then tried to kill my paramour with a pair of scissors.) Or my ongoing extra work on a certain national soap opera: I’m clearly seen in each episode in which I appear, but I never get to speak.

But most maddening of all was a certain non-student film in which I played the lead. The director wanted to work in the style of Mike Leigh, and so for a month I had one-on-one improvisation sessions with the director in which I built my character, and for the next month I had more improvisation sessions with the other three actors in the film. I was also encouraged to explore my character out of rehearsal, and since she was an Orthodox Jew and I am a secular one, this involved reading volumes on Judaism, memorizing certain prayers in Hebrew, and even appearing incognito at Jewish services and events. I got to know the young Orthodox community well, even accepting impromptu invitations to Shabbat luncheons and dinners. It was the hardest I’ve ever worked on a character in my life. By the time shooting began, I was practically living the character. My husband was slightly afraid of me. And I had high hopes for the final product because I knew I could use it subsequently as an audition tape to get more work.

Unfortunately, the finished film was unwatchable. The inexperienced director not only chose not to shoot any close-ups, but placed the camera so far away from the actors that their facial expressions are unreadable. In a crucial scene in which I did some of the best acting of my life, he placed the camera behind me, so all you could see was the back of my head.

I met my husband when I was twenty-four. By the time I married him, three years later, financial considerations (he was unemployed) caused me to cut back on the acting classes, coachings, and voice lessons I had previously attended with regularity. Yet I still continued to work, even earning jobs that afforded me membership in the professional unions of AFTRA and the notoriously impossible-to-join SAG.

Even after I had my first child, I got work. When my son was five months old, I did an internet commercial that got a lot of attention, and when he was fifteen months, I was cast as a lead in another film. With the latter job, I was thrilled, left my son with a sitter for the first time ever, and congratulated myself that I could devote my time to my family and still have a career. Ironically, while on the set of this film, both my wedding ring and my engagement ring were stolen from my backpack, from a room that should have been secured, but wasn’t. The film’s director, in a nasty email exchange, asserted that I was lying about the theft of the rings and trying to extort money from him. The case had to go to SAG’s legal department before I was awarded half the original purchase value of my rings. I soured on acting after that. It took me many months before I could bring myself to even go to an audition again, yet eventually I did.

And here I am, like Marjorie, a mother to a three-year-old, and newly pregnant with my second child:

Yet she is dull, dull as she can be, by any technical standard. You couldn’t write a play about [Marjorie] that would run a week, or a novel that would sell a thousand copies. There’s no angle.

I re-read Marjorie Morningstar again this past winter, then lent it to Pentimento to read this summer. We’ve been discussing it a lot lately. The ending still makes me sad, though less angry than it used to. It is the unanswered question of the novel, but perhaps Marjorie really is content with her fate. Perhaps most frustrated artists eventually are. Perhaps even, as John Zmirak suggests, every artist or intellectual who comes to New York with a dream must instead be content with compromise.

Or perhaps not. Maybe my dreams are merely on hold. I don’t think I’m ready to give up acting just yet. I don’t think Pentimento is ready to give up singing, nor do I think she should. What does the future hold for us, the discontents, the bruised dreamers?

Pentimento wrote me an email today in which she said, “I think lives are multifaceted and contain many threads within them, but you can't knit with every strand at the same time. Some have to be woven in sooner, some later.” I think, I hope, that she is the wise one.


Pentimento said...

I ran into a woman I know at Mass today. She's the mother of three boys, and a La Leche League leader; before she had her children, she was a lighting designer in opera, and traveled all over the country to light shows (her husband, incidentally, is a stagehand at the Met). She knows that I'm moving to a place where, in order to avoid spending the winter in total isolation, I'll need to know how to drive, and she offered to teach me while I'm still in New York. I told her I'd give her voice lessons in exchange.

I've never seen her lighting work, but I think it's fair to assume that she was quite good. The fact that she's not doing lighting now is no reflection upon her ability. I really think that as mothers, we have to take up the cross, if you will, of profound patience. If we are mothers who are also called to create in the artistic realm, this can be really hard; regardless of what anyone who hasn't been there may believe, it takes money to be able to continue to perform at a high level once you have children -- money, in this case, translated into babysitting wages. If you haven't got the wherewithal to pay those wages, and most of us have not, you have to wait patiently for a few years, unless you can work out cooperative arrangements. The only reason I was able to prepare and pass my doctoral dissertation voice recital in April was that Really Rosie and another friend met me at the university with their toddlers and cared for mine while I rehearsed. Really Rosie, I sincerely wish I could reciprocate your generosity in the time I have left here, but it might have to come later. . .

Anonymous said...

Great piece!

Really Rosie said...

Thanks, TQ!

Anonymous said...

This is a bit of a tangent, but I had a different understanding of the end of 'Marjorie Morningstar'. I read it as an adolescent and again as an adult and I always felt that Wally, in his failure to move beyond an adolescent perception of life, had missed the point - Marjorie wasn't the beaten down, greying housewife that he saw (maybe he would have classed her as a 'loser'), she was a woman who had grown beyond the false dreams of her girlhood and into the real beauty of a life lived loving her family. She had suffered over the years, but she had also grown into the woman she was meant to be - a much deeper and richer woman than Marjorie Morningstar would have had the sense to dream of being. To me, the whole key to understanding the ending of the novel was seeing Wally as the unreliable narrator that he was.

This is not to say that Marjorie couldn't have become a successful actress and still have deepened into the woman that she became, just that the life she actually lived was far richer than the one she dreamed of having.


Pentimento said...

Thanks for your comment, Nancy. That is a really interesting perception. of the novel, and I'm inclined to think you're right. I was always sort of pulling for Wally -- I love that scene in Fort Tryon Park (my old stomping ground), under the lilacs. But I think you're right about Wally's state of suspended adolescence. Still, Marjorie's obvious heavy drinking at the end (a holdover from her days with Noel?) makes your thesis, I think, a little problematic. Really Rosie, what do you think?

Really Rosie said...

I think there's an undercurrent of sadness that runs through the last couple of chapters. In the prelude to her marriage, there is Marjorie's uncomfortable admission to her fiance Milton Schwartz of her affair with Noel, and Dr. Schwartz's reaction to it:

"He never said anything about Noel thereafter; not for the rest of their lives. But she never again saw on his face the pure happiness that had shone there during the drive across the George Washington Bridge in the sunset. He loved her. He took her as she was, with her deformity, despite it. For that was what it amounted to in his eyes and in hers--a deformity: a deformity that could no longer be helped; a permanent crippling, like a crooked arm."

In the last chapter, Marjorie's drinking seems to be the antidote to a great deal of personal loss, not just of her identity, but also the death of her brother in Okinawa, the death of her second baby, her father's insolvency and poor health, although she says it is her faith that has gotten her through these crises. Wally, too, has suffered a much-publicized divorce, although he is a hugely successful Broadway writer. It's almost as if Wally is weighing their losses and trying to figure out whose is greater, his or Marjorie's, and he decides that hers is much worse.

Pentimento said...

The reference, of course, is to Noel Airman's crooked arm. Really Rosie, when I was reading the novel and trying to get you to cough up spoilers, which you resolutely refused to do, I asked if Noel's physical deformity was a symbol of moral depravity. You said, "Just read the book!"

By the way, Schwartz is a lawyer, not a doctor. Morris Shapiro was the doctor with whom Marjorie tried to fall in love before running into Noel again . . .

Really Rosie said...

I knew that. Really. Between the toddler and the husband chaos this morning, it was a little hard to say exactly what I meant, but you get the general idea...

Pentimento said...

I really liked that Dr. Shapiro. I wanted her to marry him (and Wally).

Anonymous said...

I need to go back and re-read the ending. It's been awhile, but I think I read the book every couple of years from the time I was about 14 to my early twenties! I remember seeing Marjorie's drinking during that final interlude with Wally not so much as an indicator that she had turned to alcohol as a solace for the pain she'd gone through (it was mentioned that though she had a fair amount to drink throughout the conversation, she never became drunk or tipsy - just more open) as indicative of the fact that Marjorie's life wasn't as pedestrian and provincial as Wally might have thought. I'll have to go back and check whether I still think that's true.

The saddest part for me was how once Schwartz knew that she had become Noel's mistress, she was never the same in his eyes. I think even this, though, fits into the original perception that despite the unfairness of this situation and the various sorrows that had come her way, Marjorie's adult life was fuller and richer than achieving her early dreams would have made her.

There is definitely a very wistful quality to the novel’s ending, though. I saw some of Wouk’s point being that as adults we learn to make our lives out of the sometimes flawed material that we are given and that the fact these flaws exist doesn't destroy the ultimate richness of life.

In the end, Marjorie grew up and Wally didn't. I think it’s pretty typical for adolescents to look at their parents and think ‘I will never become like that’ and that this is what Wally was doing with Marjorie. To bring the topic back around to the commenter whose comment initiated your blog, I think we would disagree on what (or who) a ‘loser’ is. It seems to me that the original commenter would have thought that Marjorie was a ‘loser’ because she failed to achieve her dreams of becoming an actress while I would say that Wally was because although he did achieve his artistic dreams, he failed to grow up.

(I just re-read this and have to add that it's impossible to call anyone a loser in good conscience, so I'll leave it at the fact that despite what Wally may have thought, the grown-up Marjorie was anything but a loser!

Pentimento said...

I am loving your comments, Nancy, and very much hoping that you'll post back when you've re-read the ending!

As for being losers: well, we are all losers, aren't we, in the sense that we are all beggars before God?

Really Rosie said...

Nancy does make an interesting interpretation of the ending, I must admit. I suppose there are two kinds of success, personal and professional, and Marjorie achieves one and Wally the other. Noel, we can safely assume, achieves neither. Perhaps Noel is the loser.

I still think the ending is disappointing, though.

Pentimento said...

I have to say I think it's a little unlikely that Noel would marry that German hausfrau, but I suppose it's a sign of his complete dissipation.