Hello. How are you? I am fine. Can you tell me what day of the week it is? Just drop it in the comments below. All I know is that today is Day 50 of my home lockdown as a result of the film I seem to have found myself in the middle of – George Romero’s Dawn of the Coronavirus.
So much of my life these days is all too reminiscent of horror movies I have either seen or tried to avoid. Images on TV of first responders dealing with the sick and dying come straight out of The Andromeda Strain.
Some people’s choice of mask has inspired feelings of fear rather than security. And President Trump is like a combination of the Amity mayor in Jaws and the psychotic candidate in The Dead Zone, putting his own political future ahead of the lives of millions of citizens and using whatever lying maneuvers he can to turn the citizens against the scientists who want to stop him.
Even health care workers are stuck with questionable masks.
Witness Trump’s latest attempt to convince the world that COVID-19 was not a naturally occurring phenomenon where a virus jumped from an animal to a human, but a man-made weapon of destruction that escaped from a Chinese government lab (like in The Mist). I know this is more evidence of our administration’s stupidity. Why, just the other day, Kellyanne Conway doubled down by laying the blame for America’s suffering on the World Health Organization:
“Some of the scientists and doctors say that there could be others strains later on. This could come back in the fall in a limited way. This is COVID-19, not COVID-1, folks. You would think the people in charge with the World Health Organization facts and figures would be on top of that.”
Kellyanne seems unaware of the fact here that the “19” refers to the year the disease was discovered, not its iteration of strain. That’s the sort of scientific understanding Trump and his cronies choose to work with. Only yesterday I read about “Project Warp Speed,” the president’s TV-Show-titled program to get a vaccine in everyone’s arm by January, despite the near certainty that this is not possible or even safe. And am I wrong, or does the scenario of a rushed vaccine describe the first five minutes of every zombie movie that’s ever been made?
I’ve lived alone my entire adult life, and generally speaking I’ve done pretty well. I’m sure that folks living with others get on each other’s nerves some of the time or fight for the technology or look askance at each other whenever a family member comes back from the store. I don’t have to worry about those things. Of course, sometimes I wish I did. The cats are welcome companions but lousy conversationalists. And both of them insist on setting the rules for when we can snuggle, which is generally when I need to get some work done or want to sleep.
Never has it seemed more important to live in the present, day to day. What do I eat for dinner? What do I watch on Netflix? How do I soothe my eyes after my tenth work meeting on Zoom? I’m grateful that the leadership in California is more mindful of its citizenry’s health than our national leader, and I have been obedient to a fault in sticking to the rules of our shutdown, both for my own health and the safety of others. I try to shake off the fear of my weekly visits to the supermarket with a hot shower. I’m doing a LOT more laundry. I’m using my paper products sparingly, and if you could have seen the joy on my face when I grabbed the last six-pack of Bounty paper towel the other day . . . but I was wearing a mask.
It’s hard to stay completely calm when you see people flaunt the rules, whether it’s gathering together in front yards or crowding the beaches. I hear that students are finding ways to meet on deserted school grounds to spend some time together. I see younger men in the market, sans mask, sans gloves, sans everything but a six-pack of beer, giving me a superior look as they meet the glare over my mummified countenance. I feel like that old lady in The Twilight Zone who hid in her apartment, fearful that if she went anywhere that Death would find her. Death shows up anyway, but since he looks like this . . .
. . . it’s sort of a happy ending for her.
Since I’m a (mostly) sane, rational person, I do try to balance my mortal terror with some fun. I try to walk every day, and observation of social distancing means that I walk quickly. As a result, I have . . . gained three pounds, because I’m also eating more ice cream and drinking more wine. I’m writing more, but that has been problematical. The murder mystery I began writing here was supposed to be a parody and has evolved (devolved?) into a pastiche – and those are much harder as the great Josh Pachter will explain to you. At this point, I’m just aiming forward, calling it My Distraction and hoping to sustain the good will of those paying any sort of attention to it.
As I walk, I listen to podcasts. I don’t have any earbuds for my phone, so passersby must be wary of the middle-aged man holding his phone to his shoulder to catch the drift. My latest passion comes courtesy of a recommendation by my friend Nate: You Must Remember This is Karina Longworth’s intelligent and highly entertaining journey through the lives, careers and multiple scandals of Hollywood celebrities since the dawn of film. The podcast has been going on for years now, and I’m only at the beginning, but if you haven’t checked it out, you should. Every day, I listen to one or two episodes as I huff and puff along, revisiting some of my favorite stars, like Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, and learning a great deal about those with whom I was less familiar, like Hedy Lamarr and Gene Tierney.
Most days I report to my mom on one of our frequent phone calls which stars were on the show of the day. Sometimes Mom adds to the story or reflects on her own memories, and we have a nice respite from discussing the news as she talks about Marlene Dietrich singing “Lili Marlene” to bring down the Nazi’s morale or expresses her views on the many marriages of one of her favorite stars, Elizabeth Taylor. Really, Karina and my mom should get together!
Today, however, I owe another debt of gratitude to Ms. Longworth: in addition to providing a welcome distraction for me, today You Must Remember This managed to give me pause, as the gossip related to a star, dead for nearly seventy years, provided me with a powerful moment of understanding about the world in which I presently find myself.
Errol Flynn was born in Tasmania, and his premiere film was an Australian epic that told onscreen for the first time the story of the mutiny on the Bounty. (Note: this had nothing to do with paper towel, but I am truly obsessed about that stuff.) His Hollywood star sprang fully formed in 1935 with his American film debut in the title role of Captain Blood. It reached its peak in 1938 with The Adventures of Robin Hood, his best film. From there it was a slow progression downward, and although he made films through the 40’s and 50’s, his reputation as a star became notorious rather than beloved. His incessant drinking and womanizing, mostly with young girls (“I like my scotch old and my women young,” he said) got him into legal trouble and made him nearly impossible to work with. He coasted through three marriages and countless binges to a tragic death at the age of fifty, although by then he looked eighty.
Look at him! Flynn was undeniably handsome and certainly deserving of his title as one of the great film adventure heroes of the 1930’s. He wanted more out of his career, a wider range of diverse roles that would showcase his skills as an actor, not just a swashbuckler. But most stars wanted this, and the studios were notorious for shoving their human property into a narrow set of descriptors and refusing to rewrite the typecasting.
Flynn’s frustration at being thrust over and over again into the same role, and this must have exacerbated his poor behavior. But before you get too sympathetic, know this: Flynn arrived from his native Australia fully formed, already too fond of his booze and known to have caroused his way into many a woman’s bed. The movies may have cultivated his image as a man of the people and an ingenuous lover, but all evidence suggests that Flynn saw himself as the victim of the unbridled lust of a sex-crazed female populace, who would bang on his door every night, begging to be let in.
Easy on the eyes, yet hard to admire – that’s how I’ve always thought of Flynn. I learned even more today, listening to You Must Remember This, about the actor’s behavior during World War II. That war, in my estimation, was the last time that Americans were pressed to unite in patriotism and basically consented to do so for the duration of our involvement in that conflict. I’m no historian, and I won’t speak with the authority of one. Most of this comes from stories my family would share about shared sacrifice and volunteer duty to the war effort. Everyone lived with ration coupons. My grandfather would leave his job at the end of the day and head down to Market Street, where he would direct traffic to replace real policemen who were off to fight. (My dad often told the funny story of how my grandmother would make a bag dinner for Papa Eddie and the family would drive down to Market Street, intending to hand it off to him . . . but he would miss the hand-off and they would have to drive around again and again.)
During the early 1940’s, everyone did their bit for the war, and a lot of this is chronicled delightfully in multiple episodes of the podcast under the subtitle “Star Wars.” The Hollywood Canteen flourished, USO shows toured the world, with stars risking their lives to raise the morale of the soldiers. Men like James Stewart and Clark Gable traded their costumes for a uniform, and if Gable did it mostly as a reaction to losing Carole Lombard, Stewart was a genuine war hero. So were David Niven, Alec Guinness and others.
Everyone did their bit . . . except Errol Flynn. Niven, who had been Flynn’s roommate and friend following the star’s first divorce, explained that Flynn had no loyalties to any cause. Flynn himself pleaded exemption due to legitimate illnesses, plagued as he was all his life by malaria and tuberculosis. But Flynn’s non-participation in the war effort was noticed, by fans and by J. Edgar Hoover, who ordered the F.B.I. to find and verify his health records. The problem was exacerbated in 1945 when Flynn starred in a film called Objective, Burma!, playing a war hero in a scenario that was false from start to finish. Due to the objections of London citizens, the film was banned from viewing as an affront to true heroes and wasn’t seen in the U.K. until the 50’s. It was just another knock on a floundering career.
Today, however, I owe a debt of gratitude to Errol Flynn because his lack of participation in a nation’s sacrifice calls to mind the world I live in today. For the first time since the early 1940’s, our entire nation is being asked to make sacrifices. Admittedly, the message isn’t consistent, and if it becomes apparent that COVID-19 is nothing to worry about and the governors of Florida and Georgia were correct, if the nation completely re-opens without appropriate testing or a vaccine in place and nobody dies, I will be the first to say, “You’re right, I was wrong, I apologize.” I’ll drink my Lysol like a good boy and vote to re-elect Trump.
But I don’t think Trump’s right. I think he’s awful. That makes me partisan, and I admit it. If I lose readers, I’m good with that. I’m going to stick with the strictest rules of care for as long as is possible. And you know what? it’s not fun, but if a whole nation could manage living on coupons, enduring the loss of millions of young lives, and doing their bit for a few years to ensure the downfall of the Nazis, then I can shelter in place in my cozy condo, don a mask whenever I search in vain for hand soap or paper towels, stock up on eyedrops to relieve the pain of too many Zooms around the planet, and do my bit to exercise patience and love as I remind even the naysayers who sneer at me at the market that we’re all in this together. I can dig in my pockets and donate to those amazing organizations helping those less fortunate than me. And I can try and do it without complaint – or at least, when I complain, let me add that little sarcastic lilt that lets people know it’s okay to laugh a bit even as they commiserate.
I have to tell you that the next chapter of Murder at Dungarees might be delayed by a day or two. I just had to get a few things off my chest. But, hey! You received a great recommendation for a podcast. You learned something about a movie star that I’ll bet half of you never even heard of before. And those of you who are thinking of packing up and heading to a beach this weekend got lectured to in a jovial, light-hearted tone. As Ethel Merman herself would say, “Who could ask for anything more?”
Be well. Be safe. Be on the lookout for a six-roll of Bounty.