Matinee Idols

Matinee Idols

Farai Chideya, Christopher Hitchens, Barney Frank, Susan Brownmiller, Alexander Cockburn, Katha Pollitt, Slavoj Zizek and Arthur Danto on their favorite screen stars.



First let me flip the script a little bit and name a genre rather than a person. As a big science fiction freak, I found my “matinee idols” to have often been people who could convince me that on-screen depictions of other worlds were at least as interesting as the ones I could conjure up by reading a book. Among my favorites were George Takei as Lieutenant Sulu in Star Trek, Michael Rennie as Klaatu (“Klaatu barada nikto,” remember? Oh, never mind) in The Day the Earth Stood Still and yes, the Trinity of Carrie-Anne, Keanu and Laurence in The Matrix. Now it’s rumored that Harold Perrineau (The Best Man; the complex narrator on HBO’s Oz) will be joining the cast of The Matrix 2.

Perrineau in particular qualifies as a modern-day matinee idol on the rise. The stellar and full-frontal Oz, which shows his character showering in his wheelchair next to other inmates, manages to diminish neither his dignity nor his sex appeal. In film roles he’s played the mercurial Mercutio in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, a tranny in Woman on Top, a black New York intellectual with a white roommate and girlfriend in A Day in Black and White and a rather whipped member of the black bourgeoisie in The Best Man. Certainly he can do justice to other realms of time and space as well.

Farai Chideya is author of The Color of Our Future and editor of


It was in London in 1979, when the thunder of Thatcher was still curtain-raising for Reagan. I went for a serious evening of cinema with some comrades of the New Left Review. This was no mere outing; it was an investigation of new tendencies in Hungarian film, at a period of molten tendency in the glacier of Eastern Europe. The Magyar practice is to invert first and second names, so that Gabor Pal’s film about the life of the innocent young militant Vera Angi was titled Angi Vera. In the dark and among friends I suddenly felt myself alone and under a spotlight. Vera Pap–the ingenue caught in the realist machinery–was suddenly discovered in some Mitteleuropa steambath. Jesus, I thought profanely (and irrelevantly), I know it’s supposed to hurt, but does it have to hurt this much? I think I knew then what I had only believed theoretically theretofore; that the Wall would fall. If she could burn such a hole in that screen, anything was possible. In other words, I really thought she was signaling to just me…the prerogative of the movie sap throughout the ages.

A decade later I was in Budapest, on my way to Romania for the final fall. I went to the Gellért Hotel, site of Hungary’s most famous vaporbath, but didn’t dare enter. I went to an actors’ bar to talk revolution, but she wasn’t there and I got trapped by a man who’d once played the cat in The Master and Margarita. Now it’s more than two decades later and I haven’t trusted myself to go and see Félválófél or Esti Kornél csodálatos utazása or any of her other films. The whole thing is ridiculous, of course, but if by any chance Vera Pap, or Pap Vera, is reading this…


Remembering Bill Clinton’s insistence on carefully defining a question before answering it, I note that by “matinee idol” I mean the entertainer whose role in a movie has made me likeliest to want to see it. For me, it was Jimmy Durante. What I want most out of entertainment is humor, and I found Jimmy Durante to be the funniest actor around. That is, with his personal style and delivery he added more comic value to whatever was happening than anyone else. As I think about why I enjoyed him so much, which I confess I have never done before your asking me to respond to this question, I think an added factor was his complete and total unconventionality. His voice, his appearance, his diction–none of those comported with the classic definition of people successful in those fields, and he turned what might have been disadvantages into enormous comic assets. Finally, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,” still strikes me as the best public expression of deep sentiment I’ve ever encountered.

Barney Frank is a US congressman from Massachusetts.


Brando’s in the window of the wine shop around the corner. Brando’s got a bulbous wood matchstick square in the middle of his pouty lips. I figure the pose is circa Stanley Kowalski, the movie, because the forehead is lined and it would not have been lined in the Broadway Streetcar era. So this shot must be later, after The Men, when I first fell in love, or maybe after Zapata, when he put in the nose rings, and I began to experience serious doubt. But definitely before The Wild One, when he was already, in my opinion, running to fat and should not have been wearing a motorcycle jacket. Oh Marlon, how could you let yourself go like that? You coulda been… I liked his Marc Antony. I accepted his “friendship” with Wally Cox. But I do not admire On the Waterfront because of its retrograde political thinking, and I think the later works, including Tango and Godfather, are gross.

Bud was always a fuzzy thinker. (Somewhere I read that his friends called him Bud.) Bud made a fool of himself at the Academy Awards when he sent Sasheen Littlefeather, who did margarine commercials, to make a pitch in his stead for Native American rights. Bud was so easily deluded when it came to women. I could have told him to stay away from Anna Kashfi. I could have said, “Look, Bud, you’ve got some problems that are none of my business and it turns out you’re not the world’s greatest actor, but quit making excuses. This eating thing, you’ve got to get it under control.”

Susan Brownmiller’s latest book is In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (Dial). Her book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape was one of the New York Public Library’s 100 Books of the Century.


Of course Brigitte Bardot will always have pre-eminence in my heart, as she does for anyone who was a European adolescent in the mid-fifties. Even the Irish censors couldn’t excise her erotic glow. But Brigitte aside, my idol remains Bogart, since he helped save our family’s bacon. My father, Claud, had written Beat the Devil under the pseudonym James Helvick in the early fifties. John Huston read the novel over a Christmas weekend we all spent together in the Wicklow mountains. Then he mentioned Bogart in Los Angeles, with whom he’d just made The African Queen. If Bogart liked it, Huston told us, he’d buy the rights for £10,000.

Since we had no money whatsoever and the roof of our house in County Cork was leaking badly, this was good news. We asked how long the mails would take to carry the book to Hollywood for Bogart’s perusal. Huston stared at us in surprise, picked up the phone, got through to Bogart and began reading out Chapter One, acting out each role in his rich voice. Three hours later he was still at it and, on an extension, I heard approving grunts from Bogart. By chapter five he was sold.

These days the script of Beat the Devil is taken as one more testimony to the talents of Truman Capote, billed as the screenwriter. Actually, my father did the bulk of the script, and most of the best lines are taken straight from the novel. One of these days I’ll find the time to lay novel and script side by side and prove the point, though in fact the book is a lot better than the movie, which is a stylish and often incomprehensible mess. For me, Bogart is tops all the same. We’d have made it through the fifties without him, but he and Huston sure made it easier.


I love George Clooney because he is dashing and amused and grown up, like Ronald Colman, whom my mother and I used to stay up late and watch in Lost Horizon and If I Were King on Million Dollar Movie. Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Jude Law–they all look like underpants models to me. Nice baby faces, no personality. I always have to ask, now which one is that? And in a movie with two of them, like The Talented Mr. Ripley, forget it! Clooney’s got that great chin and that devilish, swashbuckling smile. And he’s not a Scientologist! He’d be the perfect Sydney Carton in a remake of A Tale of Two Cities.


From my adolescent years, I still remember my passionate reaction to seeing Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride, in which Joan Bennett plays the mother of the young Elizabeth Taylor. Although Taylor was the star, my immediate reaction was: Wait a minute, the mother here is much more exciting! OK, the daughter is striking, but in a rather cold and conventional way, while it is the mother who radiates the unconditional attraction! Bennett’s great late role, that of the housewife in Max Ophuls’s supreme The Reckless Moment (where she gets emotionally involved with the wretched James Mason), confirmed not only the allure of her mature beauty but also the unique way her appeal remains the same whether she plays the evil femme fatale, the anxious housewife or the vulnerable bride (in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door).

Two further details from Bennett’s personal life helped to sustain my daydreaming: Politically, she was reported to be leaning toward the left (so it was politically correct to fantasize about her); plus she was very short-sighted, unable to discern more than the contours of the people around her without glasses or lenses, so maybe even an ugly guy like me has a chance with her… So when I saw her in her ultimate femme fatale role, in Lang’s The Woman in the Window, the only question that bothered me was: Did Lang do it with her or not? To satisfy that obsession, I was for years perusing biographies and even talked with people who knew people who knew her or Lang. Today, she still reigns supreme in my imagination.

Slavoj Zizek, philosopher and psychoanalyst, is at present a senior researcher at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut in Essen, Germany. His latest publication is Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)use of a Notion (Verso).


Some of my heroes are in fact matinee idols, like Marilyn Monroe, but I have no matinee idols as such. I admire her for her intelligence and courage, but she is a hero because of the personal sacrifices being an idol entailed in her case. To have created the luminous apparition Marilyn Monroe was to have added something tremendous to our common consciousness, whether it was personally worthwhile or not. It goes well beyond stardom. I applaud her for that achievement without relating to her as an idol in the manner of a fan. “Fan” derives from “fanatic,” which comes from the Latin fanum, meaning “temple.” “Idol” derives from eidolon, which means an apparition. To be her fan requires more than acknowledging the poetry of Marilyn’s apparition as part of our common culture. It meant dedicating oneself to her as a celebrant, dwelling on her story, making pilgrimages to the sites of her life, touching what she touched as relics, seeing her movies over and over. It also means pounding at the windshield of her limousine, snatching at her garments, surging against the police barricades and howling her name. There would be something selfish in not having heroes to admire, but idolatry is a form of pathology, to which somewhere along the line I acquired an immunity.

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