Mondays with Manuel is a new ongoing series here at the blog wherein I am watching all the films referenced in Manuel Puig’s The Buenos Aires Affair (1974). If the name sounds familiar, it is because Puig gave us that other Hollywood-obsessed book (turned film/turned play/turned musical) Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976). In his 1974 police novel, Puig opens every chapter with a snippet of dialogue from movies he adored, all of which star beautiful and iconic starlets from Old Hollywood from Dietrich to Garson. I’m working on Puig and the influence of these films on his prose for my dissertation, and this seemed like a good way of doing double duty (triple if I include the fact that I hadn’t seen any of these films before!).
Nurse: (handing a glass of whiskey to her patient, a future alcoholic) Listen honey, I want you to take a sip, it’s not the most suitable thing to do but it’ll make you see things a little better,
Susan Hayward: (inconsolable since the death of her fiancé) No, thanks.
Nurse: Drink it, drink it in one gulp if you don’t like it.
Susan Hayward: Why should I drink it?
Nurse: (with good intentions) It will make you sleep all night.
Susan Hayward: I don’t like alcohol.
Nurse: It’s good, it helps you forget.
Susan Hayward: Forget? What is it I should forget? David’s love? his smile? his understanding? Don’t you realize that I’m already forgetting, and that’s what’s killing me? Sometimes two, three days go by… and I can’t remember his face! (losing control of her nerves) And you want to help me forget!!! (hysterically) What kind of person are you??!! (she sobs burying her head in the pillow, little by little she calms down) Excuse me, it’s just that I’m feeling so bad, so confused… sometimes at night I wake up and I can’t believe that it’s at all true, I think that he never died, that everything has been a nightmare, that it can’t be possible that the only good thing that’s happened to me in my whole life is finished forever,… but I reach out of my hand to touch him and there’s nothing in the darkness… I touch nothing, and that nothing isn’t him, that nothing is me… (the nurse brings the glass near the patient’s lips, and the latter drinks the whole contents with effort)
(from I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Daniel Mann’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow is a biopic of the Broadway star Lillian Roth who battled alcoholism for years after traumatically losing her fiancé. As such, it follows the boilerplate beats of films that traffic in vice and show-business (success, excess, bottom line, repeat as necessary). Indeed, the film all but reveals its own structuring principle when, in the final scene, we see Lillian arriving to a taping of “This is Your Life” where she’ll be welcomed back into show-business after a carefully calibrated look back at her ups and downs. The film lives (and occasionally dies) on the strength of Hayward’s performance as Lillian. Her descent into full blown alcoholism may be oddly telegraphed ([and then we BECAME ALCOHLICS LINE HERE?] but it is deliciously melodramatic in Hayward’s hands. Lillian is always on the verge of collapsing whenever she doesn’t have a drink in hand and even when the film plateaus, never quite building tension (we all know where the film is eventually headed, based as it is on Roth’s own autobiography), her antics keep us entertained.
This is precisely what Puig zeroes in. The dialogue he isolates from Hayward’s performance is an early breakdown and the first moment where she tastes alcohol. Spotlighting her frantic response to the nurse’s obliging demeanor, Puig highlights what’s so striking and memorable about Hayward’s Academy Award-nominated performance (five out of the fourteen stars Puig spotlights, garnered nominations for their work in the films here listed): Hayward’s manic yet magnetic hold over those around her, whether they be nurses, GIs, waiters or loiterers. It’s also not surprising that Puig isolates the most melodramatic moment of the first half of the film; the one that’s most focused on Lillian’s romance and loss. In many ways, this is another one of Puig’s “sick, sad, gay” female characters. Not unlike Marguerite (Camille), Gilda (Gilda) and Grusinskaya (Grand Hotel), Lillian is a wounded character whose life is in disarray because of the love she feels for a man presented as her only hope at sanity, love and a happy ending. The Buenos Aires Affair, focused as it is on the troubling violent and sexual relationship between a rape-victim and an impotent sexual abuser, keeps inserting these larger than life scenes of romantic Hollywood melodrama to further underscore not only the exaggerated gender politics Hollywood traffics in, but also the way they helped shape people like Puig’s star-crossed couple Leo and Gladys.
Mondays with Manuel Index:
Chapter I: Camille (1936)
Chapter II: The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Chapter III: Humoresque (1946)
Chapter IV: The Shanghai Express (1932)
Chapter V: Red Dust (1932)
Chapter VI: Blossoms in the Dust (1941)
Chapter VII: Marie Antoinette (1938)
Chapter VIII: Algiers (1938)
Chapter IX: I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
Chapter X: Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
Chapter XI: The Letter (1940)
Chapter XII: The Hamilton Woman (1941)
Chapter XIII: Dishonored (1931)
Chapter XIV: Tender Comrade (1943)
Chapter XV: Grand Hotel (1932)
Chapter XVI: Gilda (1946)