S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. The following podcast contains explicit language.
S2: I’m Stephen Metcalf and this is the Slate Culture Gabfest. Gap toothed Rube edition. It’s Wednesday October 2nd 2019. On today’s show Judy tells the story of Judy Garland’s infamously triumphant infamously troubled last stand at a series of club dates in London. We’ll be joined for that segment by Slate’s own Sam Adams. That movie by the way stars Renee Zellweger. Judy I should say. And then Netflix has hit us with an epic feminist procedural. The story of a rape investigation that vastly under sells it. We’ll get into that Star’s Merritt Wever and Toni Collette. We will be joined by Slate’s own gang to discuss. And finally this is a heavy Slate’s own addition Slate’s own Simon Doonan has written a book on drag. It’s always a crazy pleasure when Simon joins us as it is when Sam Adams does Hey Sam.
S3: Hello Sam is a senior editor at Slate and he is one of the three people filling in for the gigantic shoes of Julia Turner welcome to the show. Dana Stevens is Slate’s film critic. Hey Dana.
S4: Hey hey Renee Zellweger stars as Judy Judy Garland America’s sweetheart as maybe almost nobody remembers her not Dorothy lost with Toto and Oz but a middle aged woman whose career has all but vanished in part because as she herself says she’s uninsurable nobody can stake a movie project on a woman so vulnerable to alcohol and pills. As we discover her she is desperate for money which will help her reacquire custody of her kids at least she believes it will and she agrees to haul herself together and play a series of shows in London. This film is directed by Rupert GOULD It’s adapted from the Broadway play end of the rainbow. Let’s listen to a clip now.
S5: Come on no said Judy. Yeah. Yeah.
S6: I’m working harder than you would ever believe are you. And right now my husband is making a deal for me. That means I can start over. You’re not listening. I have someone I can rely on someone who’s helping me make money instead of losing it at the track and we know I’m going to get a place and they’re going to live with me.
S5: I don’t want them on stage with me.
S6: I don’t want them in this phony business and I don’t want them anywhere near the bastards who run it. But you have to let me be with said.
S5: I’m a good mother.
S4: I didn’t let me start with you. I think people are impressed by Rene’s all workers performance here but maybe not so much with the movie where do you would you come out on this.
S7: Yeah I mean I’m sorry to say that it’s kind of one of those biopics. I’m feeling glad that I didn’t choose to review this which was really just because of time constraints and other things to write about in The New York Film Festival. But it’s the kind of movie that you sort of feel bad trashing because it’s hard is in the right place. It hasn’t really impressive. I think impressive is sort of the right word more than transcendent performance by Renee Zellweger as Judy. But it’s one of those really narrowly focused biopics narrow both in the time scope it covers and the elements of the performer’s life it chooses to focus on that really leaves out almost everything that made Judy Garland interesting and important enough to make a biopic about. So I don’t know. I mean I think I’m the wrong audience for it in a way because I am a huge fan. I’ve read a couple biographies. You know I go in sort of not expecting it to be because biopics aren’t and shouldn’t be faithful to every detail of Judy Garland’s life. But to not mess up communicating some really important things about what made her the kind of entertainer she was and I don’t think that the movie quite nails that. But again there’s so much that it does get right. I still think that if you’re a huge Judy fan or a huge renaissance Elgar fan or you’re really interested in you know biopic performances that go all out doing her own singing et cetera you know trying to recreate then it’s worth seeing. I also wanted to mention that I saw it with my 13 year old daughter also a giant Judy Garland fan and she loved it. You know she hasn’t been jaded by as many of these kinds of biopics as I have. She thought the performance was amazing. She’s an aspiring actor herself and was inspired by it. And as we were walking out of the movie she was saying oh you’re too critical Mom you’re too analytical. You’re not letting it move you and you’re just taking it apart like a movie critic. So throw that in there as well. I think that there are people out there who’ll be really moved.
S8: All right well I want to double back to Dana to find out what about Judy Garland’s life maybe he was not the total justice too in this film but first Sam what do you make of this is a picture.
S9: Yeah I think I’m on the same page with Dana. I mean I do think it’s a really impressive raise I love her performance on the way not you know very reliable or accurate Oscar handicapper. I think the chances of her not getting a nomination for best actress are pretty slim. And it is you know it’s a real movie in the sense that it’s not just a kind of rote you know let’s put a bunch of scenes up from her life and have her chew some scenery in it. But it does you know as Dana says I mean focus is on these kind of very narrow aspects and I may just be being too critical here. But you know groans suspect of this whole genre of famous person biopic where it’s like focusing on kind of the end of their life when they were their power to really waning and it’s like the Laurel and Hardy movie from last year.
S10: And I just like could be maybe make a movie about Judy Garland when she was great rather than than she was basically out of gas.
S9: It’s a I find the whole enterprise a little bit sort of suspect and weird it seems like a way of kind of you know bringing our heroes down to earth or something like that.
S11: But it it’s I’m left kind of wondering what the point of telling this particular story about this particular time is this movie totally landed with me totally totally landed with me and I have to admit I’m not sure why but I was completely riveted by her performance why I should say totally I have some reservations but but overwhelmingly landed with me I loved her performance I thought it was beautifully paced I liked the unity of time and place but it’s not a biopic it’s the story of a woman trying desperately to rediscover what people loved about her and her own immense gift and deliver it in order to rescue her life.
S12: And I thought the movie had a very precise idea about what it was about and why it selected this specific moment in her life which is it was really I think it was really trying to get at what an not an not an artist right per say. Not a genius it’s not an artist or genius story but it’s really the story of an entertainer an entertainer someone whose dependence on the audience and the audience reaction is very intimate and the the filaments those tiny little filaments that join an audience and get an audience on the side of what an entertainer is doing are so fragile. And that’s the key in some sense to her fragility. I love the supporting performances I loved. Thin White Rock as Mickey Deans the younger man who takes an interest in trying to revive her careers in love with her in some way or shape. I loved the relationship with the British handler played by Jesse Buckley who has to be the reprove ing nanny who gets her you know her. Judy Garland trained to run on time. I thought she humanized that role. I thought that relationship was completely believable. I’m the rare person who probably like the movie better than I like Zellweger worker’s performance which at moments is astonishing at moments seems like an impersonation and a little broad. There’s only one thing about the picture I really really didn’t like which was how overly broadly told the backstory of Judy Garland by going back only to one moment in time really which was her early career at MGM and really focusing on her relationship with Louis be mayor the mogul of course behind the studio that created her and that’s played very very broadly like she’s you know she’s like a rube from nowhere. She’s completely created by the star system of the studio. They threatened to withdraw the machinery that supports her as the star if she acts out as an ordinary teenager including just eating an ordinary amount of calories. She’s starved over disciplined socially deprived and and apparently this Dana as I understand it actually doesn’t really tell do full justice to her complex relationship with both the both the star making apparatus of the studio system and and mayor. I thought that that was overly blunt and a little telegraphed but otherwise I mean there are other aspects of the movie that I really love that I want to get into but I’m just. Tell me a little bit more about why this movie didn’t land for you. Because I was quite taken with it.
S7: Well you’re correct in labelling the MGM flashback parts as I think the worst part of the movie the most schematic and the most biopic like in the derogatory sense of that word the kind of corny overdrawn biopic that people speak of when they talk dismissively about biopics all those things did happen to Judy Garland everything that’s shown in the flashbacks. I mean in terms of you know being forced to eat the chicken soup at the commissary instead of ordering what she wanted and you know having pills given to her by the studio all that stuff did happen. But the way that it’s shown you’re right shows her as this kind of wide eyed nobody from nowhere you know who’s being manipulated by the studio. There wasn’t adulation happening for sure. But by the time it started happening she had been entertaining for years she’d been making successful movies with MGM for years. I think the most salient fact that could have been put in this movie if you want to show what it was like for Judy Garland’s movie to cook movie career to begin pre was revised when she started doing those Andy Hardy movies with Mickey Rooney. Is that her father died almost at the exact moment she signed this contract to start making movies she’d already been a successful vaudeville entertainer and a sister act. And the moment that she moved into movies her father who was a loving benevolent generous presence in her life suddenly died after having not been sick at all and her mother who was an exploitive awful presence in her life you know was the one who was there to guide her career and all of that is prime biopic material. I don’t quite know why you wouldn’t insert those facts and would instead create this like fantasy nightmare a flashback about this innocent girl.
S12: I think they did not want to make a biopic but they wanted to give you some deeper sense of why this woman was you know kind of cracked down to the foundation almost foundation of her soul and they wanted to do it maybe more images Stickley and I think they misfired there but Sam let me give you two things that really really worked for me in the movie that are the opposite of that kind of broadly played you know flashback material her relationship to to London the city of London. I thought the period elements were done beautifully. I really felt like I was in the London of the late 1960s and this kind of incongruity of her in swinging London in a couple of not very big or overplayed scenes one in which Mickey Dean suggests she she front the Rolling Stones in this kind of drug you know drunken reverie. I mean all of those. Her relationship to the late 1960s is a relic from the great golden the Hollywood past and trying to be a living figure and not a wax figure in that world both in you know in the scenes in the United States in L.A. and the scenes in in London struck me as really really really precisely done and precisely realized and then the second thing and I’m curious to get both of your opinions on this book because I’m not sure my judgment is right but it’s very sincere which I thought there was something beautiful and somewhat understated about the way the movie got Judy Garland’s relationship to her gay audience. Right. Which is one of the overwhelming associations one now has with posthumously with Judy Garland. And I thought that that bit where she where she becomes for a night she just spends a night you know hanging out with these two fans of hers. I thought that was beautifully played. I I’m really curious whether anyone else thinks that or whether that was just cornball and maybe even borderline offensive I was I didn’t think it was but I wasn’t sure it wasn’t.
S9: I think those scenes there’s a there’s a gay couple who gave me a couple who starts kind of showing up at her you know stand that she’s doing in London and kind of befriend her and she kind of invites herself like to go out with them and go over to their house one night and you realize that she really doesn’t have not only any friends but like anyone she can speak to those scenes that relationship I actually find really touching. There is something about these you know outcasts kind of finding each other that are not only very poignant but also kind of unexpected. I mean that is I think by far the least rote aspect of the movie like it. Not somewhere you expect it to go. And those are kind of lovely little vignettes that kind of step away from some of the more I think kind of shopworn observations about you know Hollywood and stardom. The movie ends with a quote from The Wizard of Oz which is the heart is judged not by how much you love by how much you are loved by others and that is certainly kind of the working thesis of the movie that you know Julia is vindicated by you know how she had a horrible life. She was you know abused emotionally and and I think that this one’s kind of the first. Version of the story to really hint at you know sexually as well that she was going to groped and molested by Louis mayor which is a kind of recent revelation that has surfaced and you know what it is in a way it was kind of all worth it because she had the love of the audience and that is it’s a weird thing and the movie with that I don’t know either that the film sells it or that that is true or a good good idea to endorse.
S10: But I think that’s very much kind of where it’s at.
S9: I mean this is a movie about her you know basically being kind of a nobody having been abandoned by her even her most devout fans and then kind of winning them back and getting one last shot at the brass ring and at least being reminded that she can connect with an audience.
S7: And what ends up being you know six months before her death Steve I completely agree with you that the scene where she goes with the gay guys to have dinner after they after the show is that the best part of the movie and it’s for exactly the reason that Sam just said I feel like that is the one scene with characters that aren’t aren’t somehow plot drivers that are more concepts than people. You know everybody else seems like OK your role is to you know be the person who tries to get her from the curtain call after she’s taken pills. Oh your role is to be you know the fifth husband that she desperately marries in the last few months of her life. Everybody seems very plugged in and and just about her and then those two guys are about themselves you know even though ironically all they care about is the fact that they they get to spend time with her. But it’s such a beautiful kind of moment of fan fantasy you know when they’re waiting for an autograph and then she says Hey how about we have dinner about the singing. I feel like we can’t talk about somebody playing Judy Garland without talking about the singing scenes and of course it’s now become the obsession of Hollywood that if you do a biopic about a singer you have to do your own singing that was not always the case. And I’m not sure in the case of someone like Judy Garland that it really should be the case because how many however many vocal coaches you have and however hard you work at it you just nobody is going to have Judy Garland’s pipes and we’re going to be aware of that. So this movie depends on several scenes in which she has to convince us that she is this one of a kind entertainer you know that Judy Garland was who was able to keep thousands of people you know just in the palm of her hand for hours while singing in concert. And I mean God bless Renee Zellweger she works really hard when she’s talking. She sometimes is uncannily like Judy Garland almost as you say Steve to imitative Lee so.
S9: But to me every singing scene was just pointing at the absence of that real voice right in that I mean that is one of the reasons why I think to sort of answer my own question why we get these kind of hobbled at the end of their life stories is because you know Renee Zellweger has to do all this work just to basically sing like Judy Garland at her worst trying to imitate her best is just you know impossible.
S13: It’s like trying to imitate a supernova or something. But you know those scenes the singing seems to me I mean she sells them kind of as an actor.
S9: There’s one. I think it’s by myself that’s done in a long basically unbroken take and I think that’s very effective and you get a sense of the drama it. I mean it is not like you know it is when you were watching her talk. Sometimes it is. I was trying to kind of call up the real Judy Garland in my mind and had trouble doing it because she was so on. I don’t think you have that problem when she’s singing. I mean the difference is definitely there but also there’s you know I mean there’s no way anybody is going to equal Judy Garland is just not possible so I think you know she gives us an idea of that and that’s kind of sort of the best we can hope for from something like this.
S11: I’m going to have to I’m going to have to defend this movie one more time. I think this is a movie about what it’s like to carry around the burden of who you once were which is which is iconic beyond iconic in the consciousness of virtually every human being on the planet. And you are burdened with being this one single embodied consciousness person and yet you are that thing that everyone else and or are you are you are caught between either telling them all to go fuck themselves and letting them down as brutally as you possibly can because fuck them for putting that incredible burden on you and performing the miracle and living up to it and being at least a plausible version of that person in front of them and I think in a weird way like the burden the mimetic burden of playing Judy Garland as an actress. The artistic challenge of Renee Zellweger is so kind of my medically linked to the actual theme and story that’s being told that it just it just totally worked for me I was like I’m completely in the moment other than when they flashback I’m completely in the moment here is she gonna be able to get out on that stage and which is she going to deliver she going to drip delivered the barbiturate driven fuck you or she gonna deliver over the rainbow a note perfect over the rainbow that just sucks the breath out of every lung in the audience and I was just I was with it the whole way. I don’t know what to say. Anyway the movie’s Judy we split on it. Curious to know what you think. Go check it out.
S14: All right before we go any further this is typically where we talk business. Dana what do we got.
S15: First of all just a note that Slate has put up a post that collects some of the Culture Gabfest book recommendations from over the years including Tana French who I know Juliette was the one who endorsed her Sally Rooney. That book we all read together Vladimir Nabokov Stephens and my patron saint of writing and much more. We will link to that on our show page. Or you can just search for Culture Gabfest reads in google to find it. We also have a couple of live shows coming up as we’ve been talking about we’ll be in L.A. and in Vancouver in November that’s November 13th in L.A. at the Barnstable gallery theatre at Barnstable Art Park and on November 15th in Vancouver at the Granville Island stage you can find out more information and buy tickets for either of these two shows at Slate dot com slash live. I know Julia as a new Angeleno is really excited to show us around L.A. and I’m hoping that we’ll have some kind of field trip related to our our L.A. show. But it all remains to be discovered. You can find out information and buy tickets for both shows at Slate dot com slash live in Slate Plus today you will get some extra content from our conversation with Simon Doonan about his new book drag the complete story. We had such a long fascinating conversation with him that dug back into the history of drag into his own history with drag into why drag is having its moment now and how it changed over the three years he was writing the book and we just couldn’t stop asking Simon about this lushly illustrated book on drag. So if you want to hear the entirety of that conversation and not just what shows up in the main segment you can of course sign up for Slate Plus our membership program which is a great way to support the site. All right Steve back to the show.
S8: Unbelievable is a Netflix eight parter. It combines elements of a police procedural it’s somber and meticulous with a deeply considered feminist parable that ladder simultaneously asks What does it mean that men a male epistemology runs the world. And what would it be like if a woman’s epistemology didn’t that I did not mean to be fancy or cryptic but do you really think that that’s what the show’s about the action of the show kicks off with a brutal crime. It’s very graphic but we are meant to pay as close if not closer attention to what follows to notice how both the official and emotional obtuseness of the cops assigned to investigate that case so destroy the confidence of the victim that she retracts her complaint. The show then toggles back and forth between the story of the poor young woman orphaned in a maze of Kafka esque officialdom and the two women detectives trying to catch her rapist played by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever wonderfully. Why don’t we listen to a clip.
S16: I got the call around 9:00 in the morning. The victim was at the hospital by the time I got to her. Nice woman late 50s kind of fragile. Even before all this. Our first generation cars just leave your window. Like every person in Colorado doesn’t leave a window cracked it may just move into a place like a couple of months before she wakes up in the middle of the night with his weight on her back. MAN ON TOP OF HER. Kinzer tells her he’s got a gun he’s gonna use it if she gives him any trouble. Was this 20 seconds. About a month ago. He proceeds to rape her for three hours. I mean.
S17: Same thing with my victim. Stopping and starting for four hours.
S16: Well after he did the showery thing. By the time she gets out he’s gone took her sheets or pillow. Same with mine.
S17: You left a scene so clean you could eat off it.
S16: My team searched every dumpster within a two mile radius every trash can. They scoured ditches. We dragged a pond hoping to find something the gun or sheets or. Nola.
S11: Nada. All right we’re joined by Ingo Kang who of course is a Slate staff writer covering TV and movies in Goa. Welcome back to the show.
S18: Hello. Hello.
S19: I kind of I didn’t exactly misspeak in setting up the show but I think it is a very important key to the show is that in fact these two women are not investigating to their knowledge this rape because that rape has not been reported and quite a lot of the suspense of the show is generated by the question of whether whether and when their storyline is ever going to link up with this other storyline making this poor victim something less of an orphan. I just wanted to make that clear. But what do you think of the show.
S20: I will say that like the circumstances of the show are so hard to believe that I think that if it weren’t a real story I would not I would say something along the lines of like oh this is a way to match the two storylines the one about the younger victim Marie who is played by Caitlin Denver and the one and the procedural the more traditional procedural with the two female detectives are also separated by three years and they’re also separated by like quite a swath of geography. Because Marie lives in Seattle and the two women are out in Colorado and so there is like a significant amount of I don’t know I guess like substance that divides them and keeps them from finding each other.
S21: I would say that overall I really admired what the show’s authors were trying to do while not particularly enjoying the show and the authors.
S22: Maybe we should note here are sort of the creators of the show are the novelist Michael Chabon and Waldman and also the screen writer Suzanna Grant who wrote Erin Brockovich among many other products.
S14: Know this is this is substantially similar to my reaction to the show which was that its ambitions are so admirable but the execution often seems maybe a tiny bit clunky but the performances are remarkable. Agreed.
S7: I mean I wish Julia were here because I have a feeling that she would agree with me that this show is great and unusual and not like any other procedural on TV. Not that I watched that many procedurals but I loved it. I absolutely loved the show. I mean I don’t want to go to just like oh the performances sort of make up for how no how disappointing it is because I’m riveted. I’ve watched four hours of it now. I can’t wait to get home and watch more. And the reason I think is just because of what you were saying Steve about this slate. I mean you call the system illogical right. I mean you could call it conceptual like this. The very slight shift in focus of the show not only makes it much more interesting than any crime procedural I’ve seen in a long time but really exposes the weakness of the crime procedural as a genre and makes you realize to what degree especially in shows like I don’t know CSI or which is referenced dismissively by the detectives in this show or special victims unit you know the law and order spin off how much those shows were dependent on female trauma usually involving not just rape but murder as this kind of ground that they would then spread you know build their entire story on. And so this slight shift of focus that for one thing there’s not a murder there’s these two investigators or investigators of rape and they want to stop a rapist and there’s not this sort of sense that it needs to be ramped up to somebodies body being dismembered for it to matter and for the victims to matter. But mainly it’s just that the the time in the show that’s devoted to the victim’s experience compared to the experience of either the cops or you know following what the criminal is doing which we don’t know in this case even so far has not appeared anywhere. It changes everything. And so and so the pacing of the show feels completely different. You have no idea from one episode to the next what will happen which I really loved the fact that it takes place in two different locales and several different time zones and that there is many other victims that are interviewed and talked to who are just as interesting as the Caitlyn Dever character that there’s not that familiar sense that we get from a procedural that which I guess is what people find comforting in things like Law and Order. You know people that are procedural addicts but there’s not that sense that you know at the beginning they’ll be a crime and then we’ll quickly move on from the crimes investigation and then we’ll get to the trial and then maybe they’ll catch the bad guy. This is really much more about as Ingo was saying that that bureaucratic you know long long drawn out mess that happens when a rape is reported and and the difference that you see when the female investigators enter is not sort of a question of oh the world would be utopian if it was run by women and it sucks now that it’s run by men. It’s more this kind of subtle shift in focus that makes you see everything that’s come before and other procedures you’ve seen before differently.
S19: Yes and it’s super conscious about that ambition too. I mean there’s a point to tons about knowing how to ask. It’s not just that there’s a question or a question and a fact pattern. There was a a a style and mode of seeing perceiving and pursuing what might be the truth that allows you to arrive at it. And I thought that that was beautifully done but to me what makes this work. I mean I’m kind of with Dana on this I do think it was compelling and I watched it through to the end greedily is that it to me this suspense really is generated by the question of whether these two storylines will link up with one or another or not. It feels like a live possibility that they won’t. And this poor woman young woman is going to remain like literally and figure figuratively orphaned and orphaned by the system. If if the two storylines don’t come together I thought that that was quite compelling and very original.
S23: I think that the show is definitely structured so that that’s what you look forward to. But I think that I mean for me maybe this is like a very TV critic thing to say.
S20: But like the thing that like really kept me watching was to try to see how the show was going to sort of critique like the traditional TV procedural the unbelievable starts off in like a very different way from I think basically any other procedural you’ve got like a very like for me grueling 17 or 18 minutes like it’s entirely devoted to her being questioned by the police and because the suspense of this is not like getting the facts necessarily. It’s about like how she’s being done wrong by the system. You sort of understand how utterly grueling this process is.
S23: But like seeing it especially hours after the crime itself you see like what an extra layer of trauma that is. And then in the second episode you get like a very parallel segment. You basically have like a modeling by Merritt Weaver’s character of like oh that interpretative process what’s supposed to go. And so I think that like again the show is clearly ambitious. I think the fact that you have two female detectives who unlike most of their male colleagues seem to take this crime with not only like a sense of like justice but a sense of outrage. I think that’s really important. I just found similar to the dialogue really dry and statistics heavy stuff like that that just like really made me wish that the execution was as good as its ambition I guess.
S7: Well I wonder why it is that all those scenes did work dramatically for me. I mean I love the relationship that kind of troubled mentor relationship between Merritt Weaver’s slightly younger cop character and Toni Collette and I think part of why I like it is that there’s this very funny almost one upmanship one up woman ship where they try to each be more competent and more thorough than the other. And then there’s just some kind of absurd scenes where they’re you know bringing up bigger and bigger piles of files to go through to show that they’re more dedicated to the case. And so maybe that recitation of statistics for me fit into that dramatically. I don’t quite know why. Because I’m the first person to cottoned on to the idea that you know a show or a movie has a great concept but is dramatically inert and I don’t find the show dramatically inert do you. I mean I know I don’t I I.
S11: I come down right in between the two of you I thought the more obviously procedural elements of it were a little rote and a little familiar for exactly the reasons that you points to.
S19: I love the performances. I am. I went so long. Toni Collette I bought I bought low back in the day and just watched the stock rise and rise and rise.
S14: I mean I just I love everything Toni Collette does. I will follow her anywhere. I don’t know Merritt Weaver’s work but now I am eager to discover it. I
S11: her delivery is so unique that it is so studied Lee low key and contemplative.
S14: I really believed her and loved her in this role. So in that sense I was able to get past some of the maybe you know witness or whatever of the procedural aspect. And as I said I was drawn along completely by the suspense of whether the two storylines would braid together but there were definitely moments where I thought you could have substituted for the spoken word actual spoken line of dialogue the sentence. But we need eight episodes instead of six. It just it’s such a classic example of the eight episodes I don’t think we’re married. I think this is a four to six part show stretched out to eight and that led to some perilous moments for me.
S24: It does sort of drag on. I think the mystery the woman who were assaulted by the rapists have their day in court. I think it’s clear from that scene that this show takes that woman’s trauma seriously as much as those parts of it were interesting and as much as I could see how much the writers were trying to do something different. I think also dwelling in that space of trauma and being asked to take it so seriously which of course a trauma like that deserves. It’s unbelievably hard to sit with for eight hours.
S23: I don’t know maybe this is like a deficiency on my part but having to sit with all of that pain was really difficult for me.
S25: And I think that’s also one of the reasons why i.e. maybe enjoyed this less than Dana. It just I really truly appreciate the fact that we’re being asked to look at rape differently and yet it was it’s very hard to sit through.
S7: Yeah it’s a downer. There’s no question it’s but it’s not a miserable ist show.
S15: You know I mean I feel like it’s not a show that sort of voyeuristic Glee settles in on the pain of the victims. There’s also I thought there was a that there was also humor and you know friendship and moments in the show that had something going on besides just the misery of investigating rape. What about you see.
S14: B Yeah I’m somewhere in between but trending towards Dana. I really it finally came together for me especially towards towards the end. All right the show’s unbelievable it’s on Netflix we’re sort of split. Tell us what you think of it. Thank you. Thank you so much for coming back on the show.
S23: Yeah happy to be here.
S8: Thank you for having me Simon Doonan has been the creative ambassador to Barneys the department store the legendary department store. He’s a longtime Slate contributor. He’s the author of many many books including soccer style the magic and madness and now of drag the complete story. Simon welcome back to the show. Hello. Let me throw this at you I’d I’m very curious to hear if this is a sensible place to start is one of the reasons you wrote this book that drag has gone so mainstream and in going mainstream maybe something about its essence has been a little lost.
S26: Actually it’s kind of the opposite of that because you know in the 90s drag was losing some momentum because it sort of was losing its marginal status a little bit and people were wondering where would drag go. What would happen in drag. And no one predicted what would happen two decades later. So you know in the late two decades later we now have this extraordinary situation where drag is this explosive obsession on a global level.
S27: And I think there’s four main reasons for that. One is holes drag race you know has given this incredible platform to drag to where in the middle of this extraordinary gender revolution that nobody saw coming two decades ago no one could have predicted this extraordinary world of gender fluidity and androgyny and pronouns and all the stuff we’re going through where many people cis people gay people trans people choose to identify as drag queens. There’s extraordinary new genres of drag emerging like the look queens that are very meticulous like Ryan Burke and Sasha Velour and kimchi. That’s a new genre of drag. Then there’s the huge politicization of drag that’s happening now where you know Meryl Streep is dragging up as President Trump like drag queens of becoming very activist. So there’s basically four explosive bonkers reasons why I thought you said now drag now.
S14: I think you’re right. Right like some insight if you would said to someone as late as 1990 or maybe even as late as 2000 that there was gonna be a revolution in consciousness about gender that was going to melt virtually everyone’s priest conceived categories of what sexuality is what gender is what these are biologically what these are performative Lee. They would have been shocked. I think that essentially Judith Butler would make its way into the you know wider consciousness of the society. Do you have any sense of why that might have happened.
S27: No I don’t I lack vision. I tend not to see things coming. Like I could never have predicted the whole iPhone revolution. You know I don’t have that kind of vision. I think the world’s going to stay the way it is forever and then it just doesn’t. And I’m constantly shocked. I think that’s why I’m probably good at reacting to it and like wow look what’s happening.
S1: Well let’s turn to the book. This is the backward look. Talk about how you broke the subject down and do its parts. Well I started off doing it chronologically you know because that seemed the obvious place to start.
S27: And it was sort of a dismal result because yeah it kicks off with some great stuff in ancient Egypt and Rome and Greece and mythology and then the Middle Ages Hello. I mean it’s there on the VHS tapes of people you know sashaying away during the middle a like there’s a significant lack of documentation for her. You know the dark ages. So I thought yeah that’s not going to work. So then I broke it down thematically.
S7: Can you talk about what some of the themes are. Because I really had fun paging through this and never knowing what was going to come next because it’s not chronological it’s more thematic. So you’ll be turning the pages and there’s a whole there’s a whole chapter uncut trouser rolls and castrati and opera and things like that. As you were looking through history what made you decide to group certain things together.
S26: Well I love history and I get sad when I think that people are disengaging from history in the way that I learnt it because I think history can be enormously reassuring and I think you know young people lament the times that we’re living in because they don’t really have the kind of horrible reference points for the brutality and horror of history.
S27: I don’t know. Good thing that’s enormously reassuring to look at history. It’s also really fun. So I tend to think I have a good nose for pick cherry picking the sort of cheeky juicy things like you know the stuff from the Roman Empire or as you mentioned the castrati when women weren’t allowed to sing in opera roles you know they used castrated men who were very famous and very rich and who were brought up for the for the role.
S7: I mean they were sort of groomed and designated that they would grow up to be kissed right.
S28: Yes and then they were madly competitive with each other far and nearly and I can’t remember the names of the other ones but they had massive follow through and massive followings. They were extremely haughty and bitchy and crazy and festooned in diamonds and they had cliques that followed them and was very funny and very interesting.
S7: I want to read one passage just to give people an idea of how your voice translates to historical storytelling.
S19: I mean this was almost chosen it maybe maybe we should have Simon read it.
S7: Oh sure. That’s great. I wanted to you to read it. So this is the beginning of a chapter called Louis the 14th Drag Race which is about baroque drag. Just read the first paragraph here.
S28: This is the sound of me unzipping my handbag and getting my glasses out. That’s what that was. Very nice glasses case. Not surprising.
S26: Shakespeare died in sixteen sixteen thereby missing the dawn of the Nelly est period in history. The baroque the flowering of the Baroque period early 17th to late 18th century brought us ornate styles in painting and dress European buildings from this period with the hallucinogenic embellishments resembled drag queens caught in tornadoes with a certain frocks lace machine was powdered wigs and novelty beauty marks the aristocratic men of the courts of Visi got seriously in touch with their feminine sides.
S7: I love that image of that Baroque buildings being drag queens caught in a tornado. It’s fantastic. I don’t think I just what I wanted to hear that in your voice. Oh that’s all. But. But there’s just a wit and a lightness with which you tell this this history although you know you’re really digging into some serious stuff that I absolutely loved. I want to ask you about the images because we haven’t talked about this as an art book. I mean it’s you know the size of a coffee table book. It’s got an image on basically every spread. I don’t think that there’s any two pages of this book that don’t come with some sort of big beautiful splashy image. And I want to know because you’re an artist and you know a person whose whole life has been about putting things together in a beautiful way. What part you had in the visual assembling of the book.
S27: Well as far as the text came together I would start flagging images that I found online. You know in various photo resource places and then working with this fantastic girl in London. Heather in Bromley who she would then go through the complex process of negotiating the rights to the rights to the pictures because you know if you get a bunch of pictures from Getty or one of the agencies you can get a different prize and then certain photographers want to choose a direct communication from me you know arrange for assurance from me that this was what kind of book this was. So it’s a very complex process. You know the fact that 100 percent of my proceeds were going to charity I would often mention that not to get the picture for free or the pictures were paid for. But just to say you know this is this I’m not making millions of dollars off this this is a passion project. So you know it’s a very complex thing what you written the book you’re like oh vey. And you have to get into this picture thing but because I am a visual person I’m used to dealing with corporate stuff. You know I’m a grown up. I’m an old grown up.
S7: Well the images really play with the text beautifully. I mean you almost always have whether or not you’re directly writing about that illustration you almost always have a visual equivalent to what whatever it is that you’re trying to to touch on.
S26: Know I wanted the pictures to be this feast that would pull young people into the world of history and get them excited about history and realize they had a way in.
S7: It is so much so that I’ve had the book for a few days now and I’ve spent most of the time just dreamily paging through looking at the pictures than my eyes will alight on a paragraph like that one and it’s delightful Oh thank you.
S1: SIMON Talk a little bit about how you made the leap from football or as we call it in this country soccer to drag.
S27: Well bizarrely it wasn’t that big a leap. You know the book I wrote about soccer was a celebration of the access and fun and crazy culture around soccer players most specifically European soccer players Renaldo Beckham you know the amazing culture that builds up around has built up around soccer. So it’s a lot about self presentation haircuts Lamborghinis wags you know ink clothes so yeah there was there was definitely a if it was a very Zen diagram there’s an overlap between soccer players and drag queens.
S11: I have to ask does Rudy Giuliani appear in your book anywhere.
S28: Oh my goodness he should have been in the well I have a radical drag chapter. You know I talk about the politicization of drag. Yeah he should have been in there. She did you write it.
S7: Did you write about Merrill dressing up as Donald Trump.
S28: There’s a great picture of her. Oh my gone right. Yeah drag. And you know women drag kings I have a big drag king chapter and the politicization of drag. A lot of women are playing key roles in that. You see that on Saturday Night Live. You know for Donald Trump to see his lieutenants and their debunked via drag. I think that really is a great piece of effective satire. He actually says I don’t like my people to look weak. You know sir. It’s a great way of sticking it to him. All this stuff they did with Sean Spicer and Melissa McCarthy right.
S14: Yeah there is something to that right that that as as these gender categories are becoming more liquid and flowing into one another a little more promiscuously there is this doubling tripling quadrupling down on masculinity and hyper masculinity that’s hugely defensive a very angry and and very hardened. I don’t know what to make of that insight but it does seem to characterize a lot of the world we live in that gender is it that trumps racism and nativism or so out front in a way. But the truth is what he did is defeat misogynistic Lee defeat a woman and in part by embodying masculine stereotypes that gender maybe is is as should be as prominent a part of our. Criticism of him.
S27: Yeah. And I think the satire of drag you know it’s a fantastic satirical weapon and they just go for it.
S26: There’s many things happening in among with drag kings not the least of which there’s two parallel things you know doing these great parodies of toxic masculinity. But then there’s also been a move away from that among certain drag kings because so as not to celebrate toxic masculinity because in the 90s drag kings often presented themselves in sort of blue collar archetypes of masculinity mechanics Hells Angels tough guys. Now there’s sort of a different thing in the drag king community where there’s sort of these Dan defied effete drag kings which sort of harks back to more English music hall style right or the drag kings of the turn of the century. Yeah the kind of dandies and but actually yes and no because some of the the early musical Drag Kings they were essentially doing these hilarious parodies of Victorian masculinity which was very daring and fascinating and fun for people men and women. And I think that’s why back in the musical era those women Hettie King Tilly they were hugely successful. I don’t think I can overstate that how wealthy they became doing these hilarious moustache twirling cane twirling parodies of of Edwardian Victorian men and people loved it.
S14: All right. Well the book is called drag the complete story by Simon Doonan Simon. Thank you so much for coming back on the show. It’s always just a total delight.
S27: Oh thanks for having me.
S14: All right now is the moment in our podcast where we endorse and our producer Benjamin Frisch is going to come out from behind the glass and join us to endorse because we’d be lonely otherwise. Ben thanks for coming in first day. What do you have.
S15: I’m going to get to Judy Garland related endorsements so that people who are interested in her life and her work can and who don’t want to see the Renee Zellweger film or they do and they want to know more can go down that path. So the best biography of her that I know of. And I should say that this was recommended to me by Mark Harris friend of the podcast and film historian and I knew that he would know what’s the best biography of Judy Garland. So I wanted to read one asked him and he recommended get happy by Gerald Clarke which was written in 2001 and is you know a pretty I would say a balanced view of her life. I mean one that doesn’t burrow down into the dark aspects just to be dark but that also doesn’t airbrush anything and you know appears to be incredibly well researched. I don’t know if it’s been topped since by an even better researched biography. But it’s important for biographies to be readable too. And this one’s very readable so get happy by General Clark. A great way to learn about Judy Garland’s life and also to me not only the best performance of an actor as Judy Garland but probably one of the best biopic performances I’ve ever seen was Judy Davis playing Judy Garland in me and my shadow is do you know that children. It was. It was as 90s no maybe 2001 mini series. Yeah that I think was just on network TV. I mean it was you know back in the days before Uber super golden TV era and. And it was as I remember somewhat plodding as a kind of biopic treatment it was an adaptation of a book by Lorna Luft who is a character in this new Judy Garland movie to her second daughter with her ex-husband at the time of the movie Sid Luft Lorna wrote a memoir about growing up with her mother and you know how dark it was like a way darker than the Renee Zellweger movie is willing to go. But she also loved her mother was very conflicted. I haven’t read that book but it’s adapted into this mini series that has Judy Davis as Judy Garland in an absolutely just spellbinding performance that goes so far beyond imitation is not one of those things where she looks uncannily like her but she moves uncannily like her and just sort of has that same frenetic kind of energy that the late Garland could have. And also young Alison Pill as Lorna. Absolutely stunning performance in their scenes with that movie where the two of them you know have these conflicts over Judy’s incredible narcissism and neediness but also kind of you know love ability and fragility that when I think about what she must have been like Judy must have been like as a person in everyday life. That’s the the image that I would get and not Renee Zellweger like there’s no way however studied and beautiful her performance was that it could overlay what what Judy Davis accomplishes. So me and my shadows which unfortunately I think right now can only be seen on YouTube. That’s pretty sad that it’s not streaming anywhere but you can watch the entire thing for free on YouTube and then read get happy.
S14: Very cool. And what do you got.
S29: Okay so I have two L.A. related endorsements.
S30: The first everyone can enjoy it’s the podcast called Welcome to L.A. It is just a fantastic sort of narrative podcast from KC RW the storied public radio affiliate in Santa Monica I think. And it’s just a series of stories about half of them are about the producer like literally moving to L.A. and his like adventures and moving to L.A. and the other half are sort of character studies from people living in L.A. and they are breathtaking hilarious sad bizarre. My favorite episode is called the recruiter which is a collaboration with the great podcast love and radio. Highly highly recommend you check that out. My second endorsement I was just in L.A. and I went to something called the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
S31: If you ever heard of it I’ve never been I’ve always wanted to go yeah.
S29: So the museum of a drastic technology is like it is says that it’s a museum about the study of technology and the drastic era but nobody ever explains what that means.
S7: It’s been described to me as a deconstruction of the idea of a museum.
S29: Yeah it’s like it is like an art piece but where the art piece is the entirety of the museum it’s like there are all of these very bizarre little displays that look like museum displays that should mean something but don’t like the.
S7: But so what’s the actual object you’d be looking at for example.
S29: So some of them are actual objects like they have these tiny microscopic mosaics that you look out through a microscope. And so those are like clearly art objects but then you’ll have things that just clearly seem kind of made up. There’s this whole section about like medical treatments some of which are probably real some of which are not there’s a whole fantastical beastie airy section where you like look at these things but then there’s these holographic projections inside of the book. It’s like incredibly hard to describe and then at the top of the museum there’s like a tea room where they’re just like doves flying around and you get served tea. And it is one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. And I think that listeners to this podcast will really really dig it if you are in L.A. or live in L.A..
S7: Check out the music maybe we should all visit it together when we do our lives.
S30: Oh my God. I think Steve you would flip out for this place. There is this one I am already.
S15: Well I mean the mere fact that you’re having trouble describing it makes it seem like a place that has to be visited.
S29: There’s a whole pot. There’s a hose and there’s just dioramas of trailer parks.
S8: We’ve got to go. We’ve got to go to this. All right. Well this week first of all I got a kick out I got three bits of business. Number one is a correction I misnamed the spinning song. It’s not luscious. It’s luminous by the spinning is that that let me know that Julia Turner was a carbon based life form.
S14: Go check that out is such a great song. As for this week doubling down on the Judy theme of the show she did a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1960 or 61 I think 61 and it came out as Judy at Carnegie Hall it’s regarded as one of the greatest live albums ever recorded.
S14: It’s just it’s just an incredible record right. I mean it’s it’s it’s just one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. I mean it’s a it’s just. And it the degree to which all of the drama of whether or not this person will have a public nervous breakdown or deliver the most heart rending performance of an American Songbook standard you’ve ever heard is audible in the recording. I mean it it it you just gotta listen to it if you don’t know it it’s it’s just indispensible.
S7: Something else is really audible in its Divas is her the way that she would interact with the audience and create this sense of intimacy with the audience which is somewhat captured in the Renee Zellweger performance which she’ll sort of sit at the edge of the stage and take her shoes off and she would do things like that. You know I don’t know if it’s true that she for example walked on a table as she does in the movie but it was that kind of thing it was an extremely interactive experience to see her shows and so I love reading testimonials of people who were at that famous Carnegie Hall concert you know because it really is like an event that they remember for the rest of their lives which is incredible.
S31: And the that recording in particular is spectacular because it captures everything there not a pattern between there’s so much patter and banter and there’s just like a minute of basically silence when you can hear the orchestra members shuffling around like it’s a real record of a live performance more than any other live recording that I know of it sounds just very authentic to it like being in that space.
S14: Yeah. I’m so glad you guys know it and love it as much as I do. Studio Carnegie Hall I think it’s on Spotify. It’s I think a total of like close to 30 tracks. But then I don’t typically listen to or endorse podcasts but I am absolutely digging the shrink next door. Ben have you tried that one. No no no I haven’t listened to that one yet. Veteran New York Times journalist Jonah Sarah stumbled onto a story and he researches it and does a wonderful justice. It happened sort of to him personally or enough to him personally that he’s both the guy thrown into the middle of a crazy situation and he’s just a wonderful dry veteran reporter who knows how to treat it as a fact pattern as a set of facts. A very gifted storyteller has a wonderful voice and also he comes from an era and the story kind of comes from an era of when something that I would think of his old New York was still very much alive audibly alive and a lot of the voices that you hear in it just don’t know how to put it just an old time hard bitten worldly but strangely tender ethnic New York right like sort of Jewish Italian on and on New York City that I think is kind of aging out and certainly being priced out. But boy you really hear it in a lot of the audio in this in this in this podcast. It’s pretty gripping I haven’t finished it but I am completely sold on it. The shrink next door. Check it out. I will yeah.
S32: Ben thanks for coming in. It’s always a pleasure to have your voice added to the show. Yeah always fun Dana. That was a good one.
S33: Yes. Thanks to you. That was a fun one yeah. Thanks.
S34: That was great.
S32: You’ll find links to some of the things we talked about today at our show page. That slate dot com slash culture fest. We love it. I really mean it. We love it when e-mail. E-mail us. We’ve been getting a lot of really good ones. Keep them coming. That’s culture fest at Slate dot com. You can interact with us on Twitter we have a Twitter feed it’s at Slate called first. Our production assistants Clio leaven our producer is Benjamin fresh for Simon and Sam and Ingo and of course Dame Steven time Steven Michael. Thank you so much for joining us. We had a one week. Saw.
S33: I have a biographical question for you when we talked about punk. I think you came in to talk about the punk exhibit with us right.
S15: You were talking about your own memory in history of when that style emerged and what it was like in England at the time. What are some of your early memories of drag and what it was like in the days when you were coming up.
S26: I do remember a time when I wasn’t kind of drowning and drank you know drag is completely ubiquitous in the child. My childhood because the huge parts of sort of bawdy what they call end of the pier comedy and panto and sort of the vestiges of musical I have pictures of myself and my best friend in drag when we’re about 10 in the backyard taken by my mother. And it wasn’t a special occasion. We were just sort of goofing around. Drag is very much part of the English way of seeing things. And in the book I separate comedy drag and glam and drag because comedy drag historically has been the key figures are often straight men who are doing these sort of fairly misogynist parodies of women you know that that you know were click bait in the Victorian music hall.
S15: You know some like it hot even seems like it’s in that tradition a bit.
S26: Well they were a bit more attractive in that. Like I’m thinking of you know like Fatty Arbuckle in early silent movies just with a mop on his head and an A Big Big frock on. So they were sort of joke parodies. And women were doing the same thing obviously. So it is like you know same same old same old. And so comedy drag often came from these straight men. Look how ridiculous I am. And you know being bawdy and blah blah blah and then glamour drag was more gay men you know wanting to be a sinuous sensual beautiful alluring woman you know and that they sort of were on parallel tracks and I think the successive drag queens like Ru Paul are that they combine the two.
S27: You know he’s super glamorous but he’s also very funny extremely witty so and you see more and more on Raphael’s drag race. The ones who combine that comedy drag and the glamour attract become very successful but in the past that was kind of a male a straight gay divide.
S15: SIMON The last thing we talked about before you came in was the new biopic of Judy Garland that just came out. I know you haven’t seen it yet but I wonder if you have any thoughts about her place in history of drag.
S26: Well there’s actually a section in there on in the in the 50s and 60s as men became drag queens became more prominent. Some of them experimented with the idea of impersonation. That was a new thing. Like I’m not just a beautiful woman I’m Marlena teacher or I’m blah blah blah and there was a famous guy a drag impersonator called Jim Bailey who did a flawless impersonation of Judy Garland and he was very very well known so.
S27: And that was at a time when Judy you know occupied this mythical place in people’s gay people in particular in their hearts and souls.
S14: SIMON What was the thing that surprised you most about when you were researching the book.
S26: The thing that surprised me most was I came into this thinking you know up until the 70s 80s drag queens were the ones who were dancing up and down on the bar at the Vauxhall tavern with a jam jar. Occasionally people would throw a few coins in it and they were changing in the toilet. And they made no money.
S27: When I burrowed into the history of drag over over his that over the course of history people have made a lot of money performing in drag. And that was a surprise to me I’m always interested in income and even you know Gladys Bentley who was a fabulous African-American drag king who everyone should know about. She was a big part of what was known as the pansy craze in Harlem. Between the wars she was living on Park Avenue with a chauffeur. And you know because she was very successful and she wore beautiful white tuxedos with top hats very Cab Calloway and yeah like just how successful and established is various people were like Julian Elton age the turn of the century was performed in London back and forth on the steamer boats to New York had a huge theater named after him the Elton’s theater which is still there. I can’t read what it’s called now. So yeah. It’s fabulous what’s going on with Ru Paul and these these guys these drag queens getting a foothold making some money making some coin. You know it’s a big message from Ru Paul is don’t put on drag and as you’re getting paid you know like if you’re a performer. So yeah. And it’s good to know that they were able to actually make a living doing nothing.
S15: Mason made some films too right.
S27: Yes. Jonathan and of course the flip side of that is you know the trends drag there’s been enormous suffering and underprivileged. So I have obviously stuff about Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera’s four heroes of the trans community who also kind of I think identified as drag queens it’s a very broad definition which this book makes clear.
S7: Right. I mean there’s so much that comes under that net. Well I might not have thought of that way before.
S27: That’s the other thing that surprised me about doing this book over the three years I worked on it the entire landscape of definitions and terms changed and evolved extremely rapidly like it when I started the book. There was really still a lot firewall between trans and drag everything’s gone out the window. I was just at the most recent drag con there are straight women who identify as drag queens. There are young kids who identify as drag queens. You know there are actually no rules. You know it’s about self-expression crafting your identity and taking the language of drag and applying it to your own identity.