I like screwed up women. Apologies. To many a friend's annoyance, I have sympathy for all those young Hollywood starlets and their myriad "problems" clogging the gossip pages -- no matter how shallow and stupid they can be. And though women/girls like Britney, Paris and my beloved Lindsay and Sienna may sometimes court their internet tabloid appeal, and in some ways, deviate from the path of my hero Camille Paglia, and her revolutionary, pro-sex stance of the 1990's (don't ever apologize girls!), I'm sick of a square public and their finger wagging, scarlet letter-like judgment. At the same time, I wish these girls would watch out for themselves. I wish for them a mentor, and perhaps, when things get really rough (as with Lindsay), a Scared Straight scenario in which an older starlet, a gal who really lived hard, to take one of these young ladies aside and just shake them. Shake them good. And who would I like to push Lindsay against a wall, sit her ass down and tell her what's what? Barbara Payton.
Sadly, Ms. Payton is no longer with us, but through her gripping 1963 memoir (most likely all ghost written, but who cares? I love those lurid half truths like Hedy Lamar's Ecstasy and Me) aptly titled I Am Not Ashamed, she lives on. I've written about Payton in the past but I always return to her when I think of our new crop of starlets, celebutants and pop tarts and their cushy lives compared to Ms. Payton's (it could be a hell of a lot worse girls!). And then simply staring out of my window -- pondering Hollywood Blvd. and the zombies who walk among us. Some beautiful, some hideous, some benign, some dangerous and some...Barbara. She, like many new celebrities, made a lot of mistakes -- a lot. But instead of rambling inane excuses, she laid it down in all her gory, runny makeup glory. No sex tape needed. And though I've heard much of what is written in I Am Not Ashamed is apocryphal, I'm also sure just as much is true -- and that so much more is left out!
When it comes to train wrecks, few hold a candle to the beautiful, later ravaged, Payton. A gorgeous blonde who starred alongside James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbyeand Lloyd Bridges in the impressive noir Trapped, her real life was not only stranger, but more dramatic and certainly seamier than any fiction she starred in.
Chronicled in I Am Not Ashamed (which has to be THE greatest star bio title EVER), Payton tells of a life so tumultuous, you can't believe she got out of it alive. Well, in actuality, she didn't. Affairs with actors to producers to shrinks to pimps; violent, troubled marriages to Tom Neal (star of the seminal, masterfully sleazy noir Detour who later served time for offing his third wife) and Franchot Tone (whom Neal memorably brawled with), shoplifting, prostitution (she was arrested in a bar on Sunset Boulevard -- so perfect) and loads of drinking -- the gal did it all.
In blunt prose that reveals a con-artist's take on Hollywood (this lady knew a wolf), Payton is all at once, funny, wise, vain, humble, pathetic and very, very educational. Even if some of this story is fabricated -- no matter -- the journey remains powerful. And though a star in the late '40s and '50s, her insights remain fresh today. Her book should be required reading for all aspiring actress' placing their dreams in this dirty, lonely town. Really, any actress halfway to the top should absorb these pages. Dig her introduction:
"I went out with every big male star in town. They wanted my body and I needed their names for success. There was my picture on the front pages of every paper in the country... Today I live in a rat infested apartment with not a bean to my name and I drink too much Rose wine. I don't like what the scale tells me. The little money I do accumulate to pay the rent comes from old residuals, poetry and favors to men. I love the Negro race and will accept money only from Negroes. Does it all sound depressing to you? Queasy? Well, I'm not ashamed."
Even after the book was published, Payton remained a handful -- knifed by a trick, drinking ever-heavily and finally, tragically dying at the tender age of 39 of heart and liver failure. A sad way to go for such a stunning star, who participated in, but was nevertheless swallowed up by that sometimes monster called Hollywood. Again, it's tragic but at times Payton angers me for chucking it (it's a tough business, but why did she throw it away so early? Did she have to sleaze up every situation?) but when I read: "Well, I could do all sorts of things, and to do them right, and it might look like they would lead to fame and fortune but... down, down, I skidded with nothing to hold onto." I return to empathy. In short, this town can suck. With this, you'll leave the read respecting her brassy, noir-like take on this seamy city. And if you've lived here long enough, you might possibly relate.
To my delight, Payton's hard-boiled tome was finally re-released a few years ago after languishing out of print. And though sometimes sparse, and questionably honest, with Payton omitting enough stories and explanations to frustrate, it's a brave page turner. It's no surprise the book was an inspiration to actress Jessica Lange while she prepared for her role in the re-make of The Postman Always Rings Twice. And as much as I'd love young celebrities to actually read, say, Sexual Personae, leading to their new-found study of Emily Dickinson, Edmund Spenser, Euripides and the critical canon of Harold Bloom, I'm thinking that's not gonna happen. So why not scare some of them straight with a blast of Barbara? Hmm...again, how can I send Lindsay a copy?
Note: For a more detailed and accurate look at Payton, check out John O' Dowd's biography "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story."
Check out my picture and video page, Pretty Poison. And check out Barbara. Is this gorilla a representation of Tom Neal?