Thursday, July 14, 2011

Twilight drive

I don't know where to start with this. I can't write an essay. It just hit me in the stomach. I was watching my old Twilight Zone episodes: haven't seen most of them in 50 years, I mean the few I managed to see without my Mum knowing about it. They seemed creaky and quaint at first, but gradually the strange and disturbing vision of Rod Serling began to burn through: an alien dystopia, the world seen through the wrong end of the telescope, human darkness laid bare by the frightening advancement of a soulless technology.

Yes, overheated old cathode tubes and beeping big boxes that are supposed to be computers, and astronauts in clunky old suits left over from Diver Dan. An atomic blast that leaves one survivor, Burgess Meredith with his Coke-bottle glasses shattering into a million pieces. But along with laughably primitive versions of future innovation (and the weird sensation of trying to see 1970 as the future), there were other things.

A mournful folk song coming out of tape recorder, a song that was never recorded to begin with, accusing a man of murder. (This one I remember. I had bad dreams about it for weeks.) A doll that talks, yes, talks to Telly Savalas! A grandfather (Ed Wynn, who was on the show several times) whose clock ran out at the same time as his heart. And stuff like that.

Then today, I start watching on my PVR and: my God. It's Inger Stevens.

Inger Stevens, whom I first saw as the sweet but ditzy Swedish housekeeper for Congressman Morley on the '60s sitcom The Farmer's Daughter. (They finally had to get married when viewers complained that it looked like they were shacking up.)

It was a long time later that I learned what had happened to Inger Stevens. It must have been on the internet somewhere, or where? I heard that she had killed herself at age 35.

I thought back, thought of her fragility, the deerlike wariness in her lovely eyes. She was a sort of Nordic Audrey Hepburn, beautiful in a classy kind of way, but always with a look of barely-controlled anxiety.

This episode was called The Hitchhiker. It was in some ways reminiscent of Janet Leigh's famous drive in Psycho where, having just committed adultery and theft, she speeds away from danger and towards safe haven at. . . the Bates Motel. (And here we have a couple of degrees of separation, but let's not get distracted.)

Actually, The Hitchhiker predates Psycho slightly, shown in 1959 during Twilight Zone's first year, when the theme song was an eerie, dark, Poe-like dirge full of dissonant harp sounds rather than the doo-doo-doo-doo that came later. The legendary Bernard Hermann (who wrote the music for Psycho!) composed that first theme, although it was sadly forgotten after Season One.

So Inger Stevens is on a driving trip from California to New York, but we're never sure why. A blonde woman, a young blonde woman, an attractive young blonde woman in a car alone, driving away like mad, is automatically suspect, is she not? After all, the shower scene in Psycho has an undertone of punishment for female independence and its attendent rampant sexuality. Janet Leigh, a lady so bad she wears a black bra, is just enjoying that shower too damn much. (Norman. . . is that you?)

The whole premise of this episode is that Inger Stevens keeps seeing a mysterious hitchhiker, a rather grubby middle-aged man who appears, disappears, then appears again. She becomes increasingly unhinged as it becomes apparent that no one else sees him. She feels so desperately unsafe that she picks up a sailor on leave, another powerful metaphor for sluthood, and offers to drive him back to his ship. He becomes so freaked out by her escalating delusions that he jumps out of the car.

Knowing what we know, knowing what in fact Inger Stevens herself doesn't know, this drama is almost unbearably poignant: there are references to death all through it, and by the end, when it becomes horribly apparent that she is already dead and caught in some sort of awful no-man's-land, we see how lost she is, her eyes huge, desperate, haunted by God knows what sort of dark trauma buried deep in her subconscious.

Dead blondes. Hitchcock revelled in them. Show business eats 'em up and spits 'em out, just the nature of the game. Fame does that to people, doesn't it? Or do people pursue fame, desperately pursue it, to fill an agonizing vacuum within, a vacuum created by lack of love or the awful presence of unforgiveable abuse?

Or am I becoming fanciful once again? Doing a little digging, it turns out Inger Stevens was married to a black actor, and in that era it had to be kept secret. Kind of like being married to a homosexual. But this doesn't make a person swallow a handful of barbiturates and die.

Why do people kill themselves? I'm always shocked and sickened by news of a suicide, and yet, I do get it. Personally, I have always found life a bewildering mess, with odd patches of wonder and beauty that somehow keep you in there, keep you in the fight: and then there are my people, whom I couldn't abandon no matter what sad sort of mess I'm in.

Was Inger Stevens too fine-edged for reality, too thin-skinned, too moody, too bipolar, too drug-addicted, too unloved? Too blonde, too lovely, too famous, or not famous enough?

But she's dead. So we'll never know the answer to that one.

Playtex girdle: so comfortable under your swimsuit!

Some truly astonishing ads from Playtex, circa 1950s-60s. I remember "to lift and separate," "you're suddenly shapelier," "holds you in like firm young muscles," and conversations between women like, "Ah, but I have midriff bulge. I really need a longline." "With some dresses, so do I! Then I wear Playtex longline padded bra."

And so on, and so on. Lycra and wire and rubber and padding, and wearing a girdle under your swimsuit. (Some women even slept in them.) Nowadays, even fat women let it all hang out in jiggly pink rolls, with skimpy tops and pants that ride below the crackline.