Death on a Pink Carpet

Live Bait Theater

Hinckley on Foster: The Hearing

Great Beast Theater

at Pilsen Theatre

Hollywood is a dream factory, flooding the collective unconscious with shiny assembly-line product, crowding out individual desire, replacing it with things hypnotic and addictive. The plant manufacturing this celluloid drug generates some nasty psychic pollution and chews up its labor–aspiring stars and starlets–with 19th-century cruelty. But oh, the technological superiority of the product–what potency, what scientific design.

These metaphors for Hollywood’s dark allure have been around as long as the dream factory itself, have even become a cynical component of its siren call. Two new plays take them up with an eye to the oft overlooked “raw material” fueling the fantasy machine: the very reality and individual desire it eventually obliterates. Edward Thomas-Herrera’s Death on a Pink Carpet presents a cool hall-of-mirrors riddle: if celebrity is more persona than person, what does offscreen “reality” consist of but larger-than-life performance? Writer-performer Michael Martin’s Hinckley on Foster: The Hearing is angrier, an indictment of a culture utterly consumed by its dream life. His spokesman, John Hinckley, is the ultimate anticelebrity, notorious purely for his larger-than-life relationship to the famous.

Thomas-Herrera focuses on the Lana Turner murder scandal of 1958. Turner’s career was the stuff of Hollywood legend. Discovered in a malt shop across from the high school she was still attending, she attained instant fame in 1937 as the “sweater girl” of They Won’t Forget and went on to become one of MGM’s major box-office draws in the 40s and early 50s in films like The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Bad and the Beautiful. More a presence than an actress, she had a way with dramatic exits, haughty turns of head, and the like–and her iconicity was top-notch. Platinum gorgeous, decadently glamorous, she played the star well enough to more than compensate for her deficiencies of technique and boasted a personal life straight out of a Jackie Collins novel.

Married eight times. Romantically linked to Tyrone Power, Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra, and Ava Gardner. Sexually voracious; according to a legendary quote, “If she saw a stagehand with tight pants and a muscular build, she’d invite him into her dressing room.” Battled alcoholism. Her father had been murdered over money won in a card game when she was nine; she had one daughter, Cheryl, fathered by two-time husband Steve Crane.

In 1957 Turner’s four-year marriage to Tarzan star Lex Barker (husband number five) ended when 13-year-old Cheryl revealed that he’d been molesting her. Coincidentally dropped from MGM’s roster earlier the same year and lonely after decades of single-minded careering, Turner was at her neediest emotionally when suave small-time gangster Johnny Stompanato obtained her private number and began courting her from afar. Later protestations to the contrary, she probably had some idea of his business from the get-go–she had a thing for bad boys–but miscalculated how hard he’d be to shake.

Their 15-month affair had a distinct S-M flavor and was filled with bizarre episodes. When Turner was in England shooting Another Time, Another Place, her handpicked young costar Sean Connery punched out Stompanato when the gangster waved a pistol at him and told him to stay away from the screen goddess. After Turner helped arrange what was in effect Stompanato’s extradition from Britain, he stalked her and eventually held her a virtual prisoner while they vacationed in Mexico–a situation that appears to have bled, at least temporarily, back into true love. Back in the States in ’58, fear of scandal and Stompanato’s rising brutality led Turner to break off the relationship for good.

The rest of the story goes like this: Stompanato won’t take no for an answer and threatens to cut the actress’s face. Cheryl, overhearing the argument, goes to the kitchen and returns with a knife. As she bursts into the bedroom, Stompanato turns and walks straight into her weapon, collapsing in a bloody heap on the pink carpet. Hollywood defense attorney to the stars Jerry Geisler is called in; Lana has a celebrated turn on the witness stand, Cheryl is acquitted, and the killing is ruled a justifiable homicide.

Jay Paul Skelton’s staging of Thomas-Herrera’s retelling plays like a slick live version of E!’s Hollywood Mysteries and Scandals. Lana, Johnny, and Cheryl–set off with soft spotlights and gauzy rows of curtains–are each furnished with a black-clad commentator who archly delivers in-depth asides on their motivations and backgrounds as scenes are enacted from Turner’s life and movies. Events are stylized to a near mythicality, presented less chronologically than as a collage of overlapping scenes and “film clips.” The effect is like watching and rewinding a film over and over.

Reenacting Turner’s bits from Peyton Place (1957) and Imitation of Life (1959) drives home the queer but captivating artificiality of her every gesture, in real life and on film, while juxtaposing them with Cheryl’s solitary starstruck monologues wags the same accusatory finger at her “wild living” and “parental neglect” as did the scandal sheets of the day. An actress who portrayed actresses countless times, Turner seemed to be acting at all times–or, in the words of journalist Adela Rogers St. John, “her personal life and movie star life” were “one and the same.” In a crowning irony, Turner’s appearance at her daughter’s trial was the ultimate trailer for her next movie: largely on the strength of her renewed notoriety, Imitation of Life became the most financially successful film of her career.

The documentary host-commentators (the program calls them “choruses”) prove a little unwieldy, especially at the start and finish when they’re center stage. But for the most part the device works, and actors Rachel Claff, Vanessa Greenway, and Dennis Watkins are properly opaque. The leads are all excellent: Kelly Lynn Hogan’s Lana shows just the right lilting star-system flair; Marco Verna’s Johnny is an appropriately handsome, menacing cartoon; and Dina Connolly’s Cheryl shines as the quietly sympathetic, thoroughly convincing center of the play. You could complain that the gossipy titillation of this chapter in Hollywood history doesn’t merit such extended dissection; still, this intelligent, understated production is absorbing throughout.

Martin’s one-man piece, on the other hand, is a tour de force of desperate, Dostoyevskian fury in the vein of Notes From the Underground. Though also fixated on celebrities as living works of fiction–specifically on the mythic film persona of Jodie Foster–Martin uses an obviously pathetic, unreliable narrator as both the point of departure for a rambling investigation and a cover for a plainly obsessive bent. Playing would-be Reagan slayer John Hinckley answering questions at a “sanity hearing” he’s doomed to flunk, Martin offers free-associative riffs on the minutiae of Foster’s filmography while craftily building to his nightmarish thesis: that the dream factory is purely destructive, a parasite feeding off the blood that “Art has always demanded.”

Martin’s reasoning goes something like this: The inspiration for Hinckley’s “love offering” was undeniably Taxi Driver, with its charged images of a loner redeemed by violence and a “rape-able” damsel in distress. Foster, Robert De Niro, and director Martin Scorsese all deny responsibility, even though they know that movies, especially by such tal-ents, are designed to provoke intense reactions. “You’re doctors,” Hinckley says. “You know if it’s any good, mass culture must cultivate psychosis. Otherwise it’s a flop.” And of course discounting such influence also negates any alleged edifying or cathartic effect of what’s otherwise merely exploitation. He argues that everyone outside the dream factory–not just crazies like him–is constantly subjected to this kind of reckless manipulation. Meanwhile the factory vampires mine the same social reality they’ve warped for ever more fashionably twisted tales, whether The Accused or The Silence of the Lambs, for repackaging and resale to an ever more addled audience. And so on.

Naturally, Hinckley’s blame of the entertainment establishment holds up only in the loosest sense, as he transparently rationalizes what is at heart an incarcerated stalker’s resentment at his forfeited privacy when the stalkee remains at large and rises to even greater fame. After all, this is supposed to be Hinckley. But Martin’s encyclopedic contextualization of the assassination attempt and elegantly digressive structure turn up a million fascinating facts and connections: the Bush and Hinckley clans were well acquainted; young Jodie’s pass on the first anorexia flick opened the door for Jennifer Jason Leigh (“And what a pleasure she has been,” intones a deadpan Martin); the really young Jodie was the original dog-tugged Coppertone girl. Martin lays out in maniacal detail the weirdly life-echoing pattern to Foster’s roles, with their variations on fatherlessness, precocity, and “toughness,” then ties it to Hollywood’s penchant for revisionism, with an illuminating outline of how “true stories” like those that inspired The Accused and Boys Don’t Cry have been rewritten into bogus “fact.” And the sly moments when Hinckley’s delusional, egomaniacal readings of events coincide with the “reality” of media-stoked irrationality are chilling and priceless. He recalls Ronnie’s nonchalant aside to Nancy after the shooting: “‘Honey, I forgot to duck,’ he said to his missus, quoting some ancient dream factory flick. Wicked fucker. His popularity soared. I made Reaganomics possible. Compassion went poof once people saw he could absorb our hatred.”

The script is a minor masterpiece in the grand tradition of the overliterate madman, concealing layers of truth beneath its ravings, swinging assuredly between persuasive and preposterous. But what really sells the piece is Martin’s wryly self-deprecating performance as the angry but resigned Hinckley, whose pretense of recovery is gradually broken down by invisible tormentors. Memorizing this drifting, looping, hour-plus monologue alone is a feat, and Martin was virtually flawless the night I attended, navigating the emotional ebb and flow of the slowly splintering Hinckley with unassuming genius (give credit also to director Kate Currier). Since Martin is moving to New Orleans in the spring, this may be the last chance to see his amazing work for some time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.