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Two new books celebrate Old Hollywood glory

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Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift, who was gay, had a long, close friendship. (Photo courtesy Kensington)
‘Elizabeth and Monty: The Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship’
By Charles Casillo
c.2021, Kensington
$27.00/389 pages

‘The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock’
By Edward White
c.2021, W. W. Norton & Company
$28.95/379 pages

If you’re queer, especially if you’re of a certain age, old Hollywood is embedded in your DNA.

For those of us besotted by classic movies — there can never be too many books about Tinseltown.

Two new books — “Elizabeth and Monty” by Charles Casillo and “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock” by Edward White — will satisfy your old Hollywood jones.

“Elizabeth and Monty” is the riveting story of the intimate friendship of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.

Few people are loved more by the LGBTQ community than Elizabeth Taylor. Who will ever forget Taylor as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or as Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?”

Taylor raised millions for AIDS research long before any celeb or politico even said the word “AIDS.” People with AIDS weren’t objects of charity to Taylor. She had many queer friends and hung out at gay bars.

Montgomery Clift, who lived from 1920 to 1966, was a talented actor. Because of the time in which he lived, he had to be closeted about his sexuality. Because of the homophobia in the society and Hollywood then, the support of friends was crucial to Clift and other LGBTQ people of that era.

For much of his life, Clift had health problems that caused him pain. Partly as a result of pain, he had issues with drinking and drug addiction. His behavior could be erratic and uncouth.  (He had a penchant for eating food off of other people’s plates.)

Despite Clift’s troubles, you become transfixed by his brooding intensity – whether you’re watching him in “The Heiress,” “From Here to Eternity” or “Red River.”  

If you have a heartbeat, you’ll feel the chemistry between Clift and Taylor when they’re on screen together in “A Place in the Sun.”

Though Clift was queer and Taylor was hetero, they were the closest of friends.

From the prologue onward, Casillo draws you into their friendship. The book opens on the evening when Clift, driving home from a party, was in a terrible car accident. He’d crashed into a telephone pole. 

Taylor went to Clift who was lying bleeding on the road. “Realizing he was choking on his teeth,” Casillo adds, “she instinctively stuck her fingers down his throat and pulled out two broken teeth, clearing the passageway.”

Taylor stuck by Clift when many of his friends distanced themselves from him.  

Taylor insisted that Clift be cast in “Reflections in a Golden Eye.” She put up her own salary as insurance for Clift when no one would insure him (because of his health and substance abuse issues).

It’s clear from “Elizabeth and Monty” that Clift was as important to Taylor as she was to him. Their relationship wasn’t sexual, writes Casillo, author of “Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon” and “Outlaw The Lives and Careers of John Rechy.” Yet, there was an emotional intensity – a romantic quality – in their friendship.

Clift nurtured Taylor. He coached Taylor, who he called Bessie Mae, on her acting. He thought Taylor was beautiful, yet understood what it was like for Taylor when people only saw her for her beauty.

“Monty, Elizabeth likes me, but she loves you,” Richard Burton is reported to have said to Clift.

There are good biographies of Taylor – such as William Mann’s “How To Be A Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood” and of Clift – most notably Patricia Bosworth’s “Montgomery Clift: A Biography.”

Even so, “Elizabeth and Monty” sheds new light on the intense friendship of two queer icons. Check it out. It will imbue you with renewed love and respect not only for Taylor and Clift but for your own friends.

Without Alfred Hitchcock, I’d never make it through the pandemic.

The COVID vaccines are wonderful! But, I’d never get out of my sweatpants without the suspense and glam of Hitchcock’s movies.

Nothing is more comforting than watching serial killer Uncle Charlie in “Shadow of a Doubt” or, with Grace Kelly, James Stewart and Thelma Ritter, observing the murderer in “Rear Window.”

What is more pleasurable than ogling the gorgeous mid-century apartment where a murder has been committed in “Rope?”

Of course, I’m far from alone in loving Hitchcock. Hetero and queer viewers are Hitchcock fans.

Everyone from your straight, straitlaced granny to your bar-hopping queer grandson has had nightmares about the shower scene in “Psycho.” Or had a crush on Cary Grant or Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest.”

From the glam in “Rear Window” to Bruno and Guy in “Strangers on a Train,” it’s clear that Hitchcock’s movies have a queer quotient and a special appeal to LGBTQ viewers.

There are more biographies and studies of Hitchcock’s life and work than you could count. Or would want to read.

Yet, “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock” by Edward White is a good read.

In elegant, precise writing, White illuminates Hitchcock’s life and work by examining 12 aspects of his complex personality. As with all of us, the whole of Hitchcock’s self was more than the components of his personality. Any life, despite the most assiduous biographer’s investigations, remains somewhat of a mystery.

White explores how “Hitchcock” the phenomenon was invented as well as what made Hitchcock the person tick. He carries out this exploration by writing about Hitchcock as everything from “The Fat Man” to “The Murderer” to “The Dandy” to “The Voyeur” to “The Londoner” to “The Family Man” to “The Man of God.”

Hitchcock was a family man who loved his wife, yet, at times, gazed in, to put it mildly an unsavory manner, at some of the actresses such as Tippi Hedren, in his films.  

Impeccably dressed in a Victorian-era suite, he plotted films about murder and rape with his wife (and frequent uncredited collaborator) Alma at his side.

For a half century, “Hitchcock’s persona was the active ingredient in the most celebrated of his 53 films,” White writes, “the way Oscar Wilde’s was in his plays, and Andy Warhol’s was in his art.”

Hitchcock stands alone in the Hollywood canon, White writes, “a director whose mythology eclipses the brilliance of his myriad classic movies.”

The span of Hitchcock’s career was immense — from the time of silent films to the 3-D era. His work, White, a “Paris Review” contributor, writes, runs the gamut from thrillers to screwball comedy to horror to film noir to social realism.

Read “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock.”  It’ll take you inside the mosaic of the fab filmmaker’s life and work. Then, break out the popcorn and “Dial M for Murder.”  

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Books

New ACT UP book is part history, part memoir

‘Boy with the Bullhorn’ chronicles hard work, grief, anger

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(Book cover image courtesy of Fordham University Press)

‘Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York’ 
By Ron Goldberg
c.2022/ Fordham University Press
$36.95/512 pages

The sign above your head shows what’s going on inside.

Last night, you made the sign with a slogan, firm words, a poke to authority – and now you carry it high, yelling, marching, demanding that someone pay attention. Now. Urgently. As in the new book, “Boy with the Bullhorn” by Ron Goldberg, change is a-coming.

He’d never done anything like it before.

But how could he not get involved? Ron Goldberg had read something about ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and he heard they were holding a rally near his workplace. It was 1987, he’d never participated in anything like that before, but whispers were everywhere. He and his friends were “living under a pervasive cloud of dread.”

He “was twenty-eight years old… scared, angry, and more than a little freaked out” about AIDS, he says.

Couldn’t he at least go down and hold a sign?

That first rally led Goldberg to attend a meeting, which, like most, as he came to realize, were raucous and loud and “electric.” Because he was “living fully ‘out and proud’,” and because he realized that this was an issue “worth fighting for,” he became even more involved with ACT UP by attending larger rallies and helping with organizing and getting his fellow activists fired up. He observed as women became involved in ACT UP, too. Monday night meetings became, for Goldberg, “the most exciting place in town.”

There, he learned how politics mixed with activism, and why ACT UP tangled with the Reagan administration’s leaders. He puffed with more than just a little ownership, as other branches of ACT UP began spreading around the country. He learned from ACT UP’s founding members and he “discovered hidden talents” of his own by helping.

On his years in ACT UP, Goldberg says, “There was hard work, grief, and anger, surely, but there was also great joy.” He was “a witness. And so, I began to write.”

Let’s be honest: “Boy with the Bullhorn” is basically a history book, with a little memoir inside. Accent on the former, not so much on the latter.

Author Ron Goldberg says in his preface that Larry Kramer, who was one of ACT UP’s earliest leaders encouraged him to pull together a timeline for the organization and this book is the result of the task. It’s very detailed, in sequential order and, as one reads on, it’s quite repetitive, differing basically in location. It’s not exactly a curl-up-by-the-fire read.

Readers, however – and especially older ones who remember the AIDS crisis – won’t be able to stop scanning for Goldberg’s memories and tales of being a young man at a time when life was cautiously care-free. The memories – which also act as somewhat of a gut-wrenching collection of death-notices – are sweet, but also bittersweet.

This book is nowhere near a vacation kinda book but if you have patience, it’s worth looking twice. Take your time and you’ll get a lot from “Boy with the Bullhorn.” Rush, and it might just go over your head.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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‘Before We Were Trans’ explores a complicated history

Scholars ‘need to tread carefully and responsibly’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Seal Press)

‘Before We Were Trans’
By Kit Heyam
c.2022, Seal Press
$30/352 pages

Yes or no: before there were rockets, there were no astronauts.

No, there wasn’t a need for them without a vehicle to go where people only dreamed of going. But yes – the word “astronaut” is more than a century old. Words and labels matter, as you’ll see in “Before We Were Trans” by Kit Heyam, and time is no excuse.

On the evening of June 8, 1847, John Sullivan was apprehended by gendarmes while weaving down a sidewalk in London. Sullivan was wearing a few women’s garments, and was carrying more, all of it stolen. Because it wasn’t the first time he was arrested, he spent 10 years in an Australian penal colony for his crime.

“Is this story a part of trans history?” asks Heyam.

There aren’t enough clues to determine Sullivan’s truth, not enough “evidence that their motivation for gender nonconformity was not external, but internal.” The answer’s complicated by the fact that “transgender” wasn’t even a word during Sullivan’s time. Presumably, Sullivan was white but even so, we must also consider “that the way we experience and understand gender is inextricable from race.”

Surely, then, Njinga Mbande, the king of Ndongo, can be considered trans; they were assigned female at birth but presented themselves as king, as did Hatshepsut of Egypt. In precolonial Nigeria, the Ekwe people were gender-fluid, to ensure that there was a male in the household. Do political and social reasons fit the definition of trans?

In England, it was once believed that to dress like the opposite sex was to become that gender. In prison camps during World War I, men participated in plays to ease the boredom, and some ultimately lived permanently as women. Early history shows many examples of people living as “both.” Were they trans or not?

Says Heyam, “historians need to tread carefully and responsibly when we talk about the histories of people who blur the boundaries between intersex and trans.”

Moreover, can we allow that there’s probably some “overlap”?

The answer to that could depend on your current situation and mindset. Absolutely, author Kit Heyam dangles their own opinion throughout this book but “Before We Were Trans” doesn’t seem to solve the riddle.

Judging by the narrative here, though, it’s possible that it may be forever unsolvable. There’s a lot to untangle, often in the form of partially recorded tales that hark back to antiquity and that are shaky with a lack of knowable details. Even Heyam seems to admit sometimes that their thoughts are best guesses.

And yet, that tangle can leave readers with so much to think about, when it comes to gender. Ancient attitudes toward trans people – whether they were, indeed, trans or acted as such for reasons other than gender – absolutely serve as brain fodder.

This is not a quick-breezy read; in fact, there are times when you may feel as though you need a cheat-sheet to follow similar-sounding names. Even so, if you take your time with it, “Before We Were Trans” may put you over the moon.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

‘Knocking Myself Up’ a hilarious, hopeful read

Queer writer Michelle Tea reveals struggle to get pregnant in memoir

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(Book cover image courtesy of Dey Street)

 ‘Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility’
By Michelle Tea
c.2022, Dey Street
$28.99/304 pages

Most books, no matter how fab, can be put down. For meals, naps, dancing, binge-watching – sex.

This isn’t how it goes with queer writer Michelle Tea’s new book “Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility.” Once you start it, everything else will stop until you finish it. Then, you’ll still be inhaling Tea’s captivating memoir.

Recently on YouTube, I came across the mid-century TV sitcom “Leave It to Beaver.” The show featured an archetypal 1950s family – the Cleavers: white, middle-class, straight – with a Dad (Ward) who worked at “the office,” Mom (June), a homemaker, and two sons – Wally and Theodore (a.k.a. Beaver). They lived in a house with an immaculate lawn and a white picket fence.

This isn’t to dis the Cleavers, who were beloved by many Boomers (queer and non-queer). R.I.P., Tony Dow! (Dow, who played Wally, died last month.)

But June Cleaver, the epitome of white, hetero, middle-class motherhood, would be thunderstruck by  “Knocking Myself Up.”

After being childless, Tea, 40, and living in San Francisco, single, with no health insurance, after much soul-searching, decided to have a child.

From the first word – Tea sucks us into her story.

“Hello,” Tea writes, “This is your narrator, Michelle Tea.”

 “I’m about to bring you into my inner world,” Tea continues, “during a period of time when that space was as wild, messy, hopeful, dizzy, tragic, terrifying and open-hearted as any era I’ve ever lived.”

Tea has become iconic for her queer wit, intelligence and searing interrogation of herself, the people in her life and the culture.

Tea, born in 1971 in Chelsea, Mass., grew up in a working-class background. She struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness (which ran in her family).

Her family members aren’t monsters. Tea’s mother and sister love her. But growing up for her wasn’t a sitcom odyssey.

Her stepfather copped to spying on her (in her bedroom – in the bathroom) through a hole in the wall.

Tea became a scribe when she was in second grade and, since then, has never stopped writing.

She’s the author of more than 12 books, including the cult classic “Valencia,” the brilliant essay collection “Against Memoir” and the speculative memoir “Black Wave.”

Tea has received awards from the Guggenheim, Lambda Literary and Rona Jaffe foundations; Pen/America; and other distinguished institutions. Along with being a prolific writer, Tea has been an intrepid cultural interventionist.

She started Drag Queen Story Hour, co-created the Sister Spit queer literary performance tours, and was the founding director of RADAR Productions, a Bay Area literary organization for more than a decade.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of, what Tea’s bio calls, her “cultural interventions.”

Tea has helmed the imprints Sister Spit Books at City Lights Publishers and Amethyst Editions at the Feminist Press. Tea produces and hosts the Your Magic podcast where she reads tarot cards for Roxanne Gay and other artists.

But Tea’s dazzling  literary status doesn’t prevent her from running into obstacles when she tries to become pregnant and give birth. Professional cred is no match against heteronormality.

Opting to have a baby is a rollicking ride no matter who you are, Tea writes. “You’re setting out to conjure a life,” she adds, “and in the process, deeply unsettle your own.”

But having a child is a hell of a lot more unsettling, Tea discovers, if you’re queer, single and have no health insurance — even if you live in San Francisco (the epicenter of queerness).

Tea finds that fertility clinics are set up for straight people.

During her quest to become pregnant, she finds love and marries Orson, who’s nonbinary. Yet clinic forms and personnel refer to Orson as her “husband.” Because they’re queer, Tea and Orson (unlike straight couples) are required to talk to a mental health professional.

Tea worries that even though she’s married, she’ll have to legally adopt her baby.

Despite Tea’s no-holds-barred stories of these difficulties, “Knocking Myself UP” is far from a downer.

It features a glam drag queen sperm donor, a witch, Tea’s loving sister and tons of info on everything from ovulation to implantation.

“Knocking Myself Up” is a hilarious, compelling, hopeful read at a time when hope is scarce as gold and fleeting as the wind.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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