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.