Tragic lives, to entertain you

Maria Schneider and Marlon BrandoIf the sexual revolution sometimes appears as a doubtful
benefit to civilisation, there is always one accomplishment its champions can
boast: women have been liberated from the domestic sphere and can take their
place in public life as equals in intelligence and dignity with men.

There are casualties, of course. One of them, French actress
Maria Schneider, died earlier this month at the age of only 58. Born to a
teenage mother, the child of an extra-marital affair who did not meet her
father until she was 15, Maria was only 19 when she played opposite Marlon
Brando in a film which remains a byword for depravity or daring, depending on
which side of the revolution you take your stand.

One need never have seen "Last Tango in Paris" (I have not) to
know about its dehumanising theme: sex with no hint of love between two people
who do not even know one another’s name, and a scene, which, though still described in reputable newspapers by circumlocutions, is clearly simulated sodomy. Maria
found out later that the part was originally scripted for a boy. She recalled
much later that she was humiliated by the scene and cried real tears during it,
but that she was a mere “baby” at the time and fell under the power of director
Bernado Bertolucci, whom she described as “manipulative”.

Bertolucci and Brando got Oscar nominations from the avant
garde for their brainwave while Maria, left to cope with the scandal and being
“looked at like an animal” by men in public, rapidly progressed to a nervous
breakdown and a life blighted by drug addiction, suicide attempts and broken
relationships. She rarely undressed in a film again, and in latter years
offered women actors this piece of advice: “Never take your clothes off for
middle-aged men who claim that it’s art.”

If only Anna Nicole Smith had heard that before she met Hugh
Hefner and launched her notorious public career from the pages of Playboy. But
it was already far too late. At age 24, and from another dysfunctional family,
the girl from the Texas backblocks had been married and separated, had borne a
son and worked as a stripper. In Playboy she announced her ambition of being
“the next Marilyn Monroe”. What happened was even worse than that. Anna Nicole
lived one of the most bizarre and demeaning lives imaginable, goaded on by the
insatiable appetite of reality television consumers for watching people

And that is the point, you see. Having thrown off every kind
of restraint (she was a pathological over-eater as well, and foul mouthed)
nobody respected her or seemed to give a damn what happened to her -- least of
all the media bosses who used her so shamelessly. New York magazine put her on
its cover in 1994 to illustrate a story called “White Trash Nation”. She had exposed
what libertinism does to people and the liberal establishment did not like it.
Her death from a drug overdose in 2009 was described by a British academic recently as follows:

"Anna Nicole did not end in a
state of grace. When her son died, she hysterically entreated Jesus to take her
instead, then recovered in time to sell the last photographs of him alive; at
his funeral, she climbed into his open coffin. A few months later, she died in
a puddle of vomit, and millions peeked at snapshots of her messy exit on the

That disdainful and sarcastic account of a woman’s horrible
death is just a small part of a carefully crafted (the writer, Peter Conrad,
teaches English literature at Oxford) four-page article, all in a similar sneering
vein. One does not have to read far into it, however, to understand the utter
contempt in which some highbrow liberals hold the lowbrow victims of sexual
liberation and the popular “culture” it has spawned. The whole thing is an

But the reason for the article is even more shocking: yesterday
in London an opera based on this unfortunate woman’s life opened at the Royal
Opera House. Yes, “Anna Nicole”, the opera (libretto by the same genius as gave
the world “Jerry Springer, The Opera”), is going to make arty entertainment of
the desperate trajectory of her life all over again -- complete with (warning
on the ROH website) “sex, extreme language and drug abuse”.

But this cynical production seems to be only the beginning
of a trend. Later this year, a stage show at the Globe Theatre will dramatise
the life of Jade Goody, who achieved celebrity status in the UK version of Big
Brother in 2002. On the strength of her “rough-around-the-edges, hard-drinking”
performance (to quote one of the kinder journalistic descriptions) Jade was
voted fourth place in a viewers’ poll on the “100 Worst Britons”. Next she
disgraced herself by uttering racist putdowns of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on
Celebrity Big Brother.

She was, notes
one writer
, “at once dismissed and over-analysed as ‘famous for being
famous’, a manufactured creature whose only talent was relentless self-exposure,
the dismal product of a country in thrall to the cult of celebrity.” However, the
journalistic consensus seems to be that Jade “redeemed herself” by dying, very
publicly, of cervical cancer -- a walking public health advertisement. She was
only 28, a victim of exposure to the sexual mores of the twentieth century.

Now she is to be immortalised, or rather, deified, in a play
called “The God of Soho”. Playwright Chris Hannan gushes: "The
contemporary equivalent of the kings and queens and dukes that Shakespeare puts
on stage are these stars. We call them our gods and goddesses."

Oh. Do we? Jade Goody did display a kind of heroism at the
end of her life -- she did the best she knew to protect her two young sons,
having them, and herself, christened, and
using her celebrity status to earn as much money for them as she could -- but
the attempt to mythologise her is absurd, and a form of commercial exploitation
in the same league as Big Brother, Playboy and Last Tango. She was not a tragic
queen or goddess; she was a real, misguided young woman from yet another
chaotic family who seemingly never got a word of sound advice until she was
face to face with death. Such lives are best left to the private memories of
those who truly loved them.

Dutch soprano Eva Maria Westbroek, who takes the role of
Anna Nicole in the current London production of that name, has expressed
puzzlement over the motives of the woman: “Why would you do that to yourself?
Where does that come from?” Ms Westbroek has decided, writes Peter Conrad in
the Observer article quoted earlier in this piece, “that Anna Nicole was
driven, like Salome, by an erotic compulsion that compelled her to destroy
herself: ‘I find her fascinating and tragic because she really went for

Where did that compulsive eroticism come from? Well, we know
one answer to that question: it came to a large extent from the culture created
by film directors, porn magnates, television bosses and brand marketers -- the “middle-aged
men” who cynically encouraged Maria Schneider, Anna Nicole Smith and Jade Goody
to expose themselves, one way or another, in the name of art, but for reasons
of profit.

To that line-up we now have to add opera house and theatre
czars, playwrights and performers from the world of the higher arts, who,
having emptied theatres of their traditional audience by the hollow and obscene
post-modernist charades they choose to put on the stage, are now bidding to
fill the seats with recruits from the bear-pit of reality TV.

That the vulnerabilities and compulsions of women from what
the British like to call the “underclass” are exploited by their masters for
entertainment some 40 years after Maria Schneider made her fatal mistake,
should make us wonder exactly what the liberation of women means.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


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