*The Life and Art Of…

I, like seemingly every other member of the Australian public, with whom Bob Hawke had his celebrated ‘love affair’, watched the telemovie about the man himself that screened on Sunday night. But unlike probably everyone else in the nation, I also watched another film, The Boost, a cautionary nineteen eighties tale about drug addiction that unfolds to the accompaniment of incessant saxophone music. Both these works certainly made me think, even if I wasn’t thinking about what they had been designed to make me think about.

I’ve never forgotten the time when I was in Year Nine that my Geography teacher announced out of the clear blue sky that when it came to Bob Hawke, ‘a lot of women find him very attractive’. Naturally, this statement was met with shouts of mirth from a roomful of fourteen year olds, several of whom were saving themselves for a wedding night with gender-bending pop star Marilyn. Hawke (or Bob’s Party, as I like to call it) emphatically did not shy away from the question of Hawkie’s appeal to the ladies, even though it also showed him disgustedly exclaiming that Blanche d’Alpuget’s first biography of him would give readers the impression that he was a ‘raging, lecherous beast’. There was much to enjoy in Hawke – not least a close-up of a ham and cheese sandwich before a conversation with Bill Hayden, and Hawkie not being able to remove a tape from a VCR. However, aside from all the tense conversations with Paul Keating, I have to admit that it was the Blanche business that really grabbed my attention. It was made clear by her wardrobe – variously, leopard prints, peasant blouses and berets – how electrifying and bohemian Blanche was, and these images naturally stay in the mind longer than does the list of Hawkie’s accomplishments that was tacked on at the end of the movie. Then, while watching ‘The Interview’ with Hugh Riminton that screened afterwards, my ears really pricked up when the real-life Blanche (sans beret) was talking about how she had at one time wanted to stab Hawkie with a kitchen knife. (Unfortunately, Riminton neglected to ask whether the humble staffer who had to shelter in the bathroom while Bob and Blanche had a fiery sexual reunion was really listening to ‘Run to Paradise’ on his Walkman.) The bottom line is that the Accord is all very well but it’s difficult for it to compete with talk of ‘Old Silver’ narrowly averting being the victim of a crime of passion.

While I’ve never realised my dream of seeing either, let alone both, the biopics of Jean Harlow that were, peculiarly, both released in 1965 and each starred an actress with the first name of Carol (although one of them did spell it with two ‘l’s), I’ve still managed to take in many a biopic in my time. I once spent New Year’s Eve watching Jennifer Love Hewitt in The Audrey Hepburn Story, despite the fact that Audrey Hepburn is a woman I detest. I’ve devoured everything from Summer Dreams: The Story of the Beach Boys, to The Jayne Mansfield Story, even though, as one IMDber would have it, in complaining that Jayne Mansfield didn’t give a full enough portrait of its subject, ‘we’re not allowed to see the woman who turned down the role of Ginger on Gilligan’s Island’. And, of course, that statement sums up the strange thing about most biopics, which is that, while if the subject hadn’t been in the line of work he or she had been in, the given biopic wouldn’t exist, biopics usually devote little time to their subjects’ work. Having said that, this phenomenon doesn’t bother me in the slightest, given that I am a person who habitually reads books about people with whose work I’m entirely unfamiliar. Partly because she lived in a suburb near where I grew up, I ploughed through an enormous biography of Charmian Clift, not to mention a memoir by the daughter whom she’d given up for adoption, when, to this day, I’ve barely read a word that Clift wrote. I nearly bought a biography of Emily Dickinson merely because the headline on the review read, ‘Focus on domestic gossip will disappoint readers hoping for a fuller portrait of the poet’.

And all this brings me to The Boost, about an unfeasibly happy young couple, Lenny and Linda, whose relationship is Destroyed by Drugs; here, the life overtakes the work because what happened behind the scenes largely trumps what’s on screen. In the book on which the film was based, the drug in question was Quaaludes, but the filmmakers changed it to cocaine to make The Boost relevant to upwardly mobile people in 1988, rather than to David Bowie in 1974, although, having said that, Lenny does in the film make a sudden U-turn into ’lude use. Lenny, because he’s played by James Woods seems, as I am far from the first person to note, just as loopy and ‘wired’ before he’s in the throes of coke addiction as he does after it. On the other hand, Linda (Sean Young), a paralegal by trade, spends an excessive amount of time taking ballet classes, as did Zelda Fitzgerald when she was going crazy. And while Young herself is known for having starred in Blade Runner, arguably the most boring film ever made, she’s best known for doing nutty things. The most recent of these was when, at the Directors Guild of America awards, she yelled at a video montage from Michael Clayton and heckled Julian Schnabel (though this seems entirely reasonable, if, as had I, she had ever paid good money to see Basquiat).

But the Young legend all started with, of course, The Boost, after which Woods sued her for harassment of him and his then fiancée – specifically, for allegedly leaving a disfigured doll on their doorstep and trampling their flowerbed. (Both Young and Woods, however, vehemently deny the ‘urban legend’ that she once Super Glued his penis to his leg.) So, while I’ve always got a lot out of The Boost, especially scenes of decadent partying that are so overpoweringly of the eighties that you keep expecting Peta Toppano to walk in, and watching John Kapelos, who was the janitor in The Breakfast Club (and who, incredibly, also played Barry Profit, the drug-addicted accountant in Seinfeld), getting to play someone living the high life, complete with sockless loafers, it’s in contemplating the behind-the-scenes antics that the greatest pleasure lies. These antics, of course, partly resulted in Young getting the kind of ‘rep’ that means she’s gone from movies to The Young and the Restless, in which she plays a Canadian barmaid, whom Young herself describes as a woman who ‘wears an apron and a plaid shirt’. I dare anyone to listen to The Boost’s commentary and not be swept away by Woods’s sheer volume of talk, as he speaks with great authority on the topic of cocaine; uses expressions like ‘paying the piper’; and, weirdest of all, heaps wild praise on Young, at one point rhapsodising that with beauty like that, simple black and a string of pearls is all you need.

Of course, there are many examples of the work trumping the life, as in the Paul Newman situation, when the individual seems, tediously, barely to have put a foot wrong in their private life but on screen can appear as complicated as The Wire at its most incomprehensible. That’s all well and good, but right now I’m seeking a biography of writer Elizabeth von Arnim. Yes, I barely know who she is either but I do know that (in the manner of The Boost) she once discovered a stash of cocaine in her husband’s study. Furthermore, I have read that the husband himself was a man who dined almost exclusively on leg of mutton; was accused by his first wife of throwing a cat at the ceiling; and had an affair with his secretary, a woman by the name of Miss Otter. Now measure all this against the fact that von Arnim’s best-known work is called Elizabeth and Her German Garden. While I don’t doubt the book’s excellence, I really just want to know more about Miss Otter.

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