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We Tell Ourselves Stories

In her essay I Can’t Get That Monster Out Of My Mind (included in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968), Joan Didion diagnoses a sickly 1960s Hollywood system that had “a few interesting minds at work; and a great many less interesting ones” and was producing “fewer pictures but not necessarily better pictures”.

Despite Hollywood’s self-image as a place that not only “strangles talent but poisons the soul”, Didion suggests the cause of this malaise is, not the often-cited lack of freedom to create, but a lack of creativity and style. By then, the days of strict studio control and stringent moral Production Codes were over: “No more curfew, no more Daddy, anything goes”.

This freedom meant American film-makers were putting what Didion calls “personal fantasies on film”, usually by making a personal statement about an issue or problem. She skewers their choice of issues as “no longer real issues – if indeed they ever were”, suggesting that their unimaginative, out-of-step approach produced work that was rarely as radical as they thought it was.

In an aside, Didion refers to the grandiose notions of one of these creatives: “You may remember that Judgement at Nuremburg received an Academy Award, which the screenwriter Abby Mann accepted on behalf of ‘all intellectuals’.”

I could not get that out of my mind and decided to follow the quote home to experience it in context. It turns out that Mann, on stage in 1962 accepting his Oscar, said no such thing. The full script of his acceptance speech is available on the Academy’s website and is polished, prepared and as pompous as you’d expect from a screenwriter. However, it contains no reference to ‘intellectuals’:

“A few years ago I retired to a room on 58th Street in New York, and I retired there with some legal records of the Third Reich. And I went there because I believe that a writer who’s worth his salt at all has an obligation not only to entertain but to comment on the world in which he lives. Not only to comment, maybe, but to maybe have a shot at reshaping that world. It’s a long way from that room to this hall and I couldn’t accept this without, without mentioning a couple of allies I’d picked up on the way. One, of course, is my brilliant mentor, Stanley Kramer; a man of courage, talent, and a man of his word. And probably the most gifted cast that a writer ever had in on a picture, to say thanks to you, Spence, Burt, Judy, Dick, Marlene, Max. I tell you, I consider this from the Academy [holds up his Oscar] to be a trust. And I promise you this, I won’t abuse it.

A YouTube video of the speech confirms that this is the entire speech. Nonetheless, Pauline Kael also falsely claims that: “When Mann’s screenplay won the Academy Award, he accepted, with excruciating humility, not only for himself “but for all intellectuals”.

As I can’t ascertain where this quote was originally published, I can’t guess if Didion ‘inspired’ Kael or vice versa. (It’s possibly from a short original review from the New Yorker’s Goings On in Town section, which might indicate Didion pinched it from Kael, perhaps unwittingly as those items aren’t signed).

All that is obvious is they are both incorrect in the same way and neither of them seemed to notice.

Two Girls, One Quote

Two women witnessing something that didn’t happen is mildly curious. That it was these two women is intriguing. It has been said that the “story of modern American cultural criticism is the story of three California girls who went East — Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag and Joan Didion.” It has also been said that Kael and Didion didn’t exactly get along.

In their early careers in 1960’s New York, both were contributors to Vogue, where they would review movies on alternate issues. Same gig, different views – and their sniping disagreements were noticed and interpreted as something personal.

Their differences have been attributed to their similarities:

…both were Northern California kids who had close-read Henry James at Berkeley, gone East to get their bearings, and returned to California to forge their styles. Both were exceptionally sensitive to the cultural atomization of the sixties and its fractured narratives.

It’s easy to see how they might have been preoccupied in a game of “compare-and-contrast”. This ‘game’ continued through their careers, where their similarities and differences created sparks. Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne, who himself was drawn into the rivalry, famously described the pair as “two tough little numbers, each with the instincts of a mongoose and an amiable contempt for the other’s work”.

I’m not sure what is more contemptuous: to copy someone’s work or for them to not even notice you have.


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