24 FEBRUARY, 2015
By: Maria Popova
“The public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth.”
Over and over, Joan Didion has emerged as an enchantress of nuance — a writer of deep and dimensional wisdom on such undying human issues as self-respect, grief, and the passage of time. Didion has a particular penchant for unraveling issues of social friction and discomfort to reveal that they are merely symptoms, rather than causes, of deeper societal pathologies.
Take Hollywood’s diversity problem, of which the world becomes palpably aware every year as the Academy Awards roll around. (Awards are, after all, a vehicle for rewarding the echelons of a system’s values, and the paucity of people of color among nominees and winners speaks volumes about how much that system values diversity — something that renders hardly surprising a recent Los Angeles Times survey, which found that the Oscar-dispensing academy is primarily male and 94% white.) Nearly half a century before today’s crescendoing public outcries against Hollywood’s masculine whiteness, Didion addressed the issue with unparalleled intellectual elegance.
In an essay titled “Good Citizens,” written between 1968 and 1970 and found in the altogether indispensable The White Album (public library) — which also gave us Didion on driving as a transcendent experience — she turns her perceptive and prescient gaze to Hollywood’s diversity problem and the vacant pretensions that both beget and obscure it.
Joan Didion by Julian Wasser
Shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Didion writes:
Politics are not widely considered a legitimate source of amusement in Hollywood, where the borrowed rhetoric by which political ideas are reduced to choices between the good (equality is good) and the bad (genocide is bad) tends to make even the most casual political small talk resemble a rally.
And because this is Didion — a writer of extraordinary subtlety and piercing precision, who often tells half the story in the telling itself — she paints a backdrop of chronic superficiality as she builds up to the overt point:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” someone said to me at dinner not long ago, and before we had finished our fraises des bois he had advised me as well that “no man is an island.” As a matter of fact I hear that no man is an island once or twice a week, quite often from people who think they are quoting Ernest Hemingway. “What a sacrifice on the altar of nationalism,” I heard an actor say about the death in a plane crash of the president of the Philippines. It is a way of talking that tends to preclude further discussion, which may well be its intention: the public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony.
She recounts one event particularly painful to watch — a staged debate between the writer William Styron and the actor Ossie Davis. Davis had asserted that Styron’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, in which the black protagonist falls in love with a white woman, had encouraged racism. With her characteristic clarity bordering on wryness, Didion notes: “It was Mr. Styron’s contention that it had not.” She sums up the evening with one famous spectator’s response:
James Baldwin sat between them, his eyes closed and his head thrown back in understandable but rather theatrical agony.
Didion reflects on what that particular event revealed — and still reveals — about Hollywood’s general vacancy of any real commitment to social justice:
[The evening’s] curious vanity and irrelevance stay with me, if only because those qualities characterize so many of Hollywood’s best intentions. Social problems present themselves to many of these people in terms of a scenario, in which, once certain key scenes are licked (the confrontation on the courthouse steps, the revelation that the opposition leader has an anti-Semitic past, the presentation of the bill of participants to the President, a Henry Fonda cameo), the plot will proceed inexorably to an upbeat fade. Marlon Brando does not, in a well-plotted motion picture, picket San Quentin in vain: what we are talking about here is faith in a dramatic convention. Things “happen” in motion pictures. There is always a resolution, always a strong cause-effect dramatic line, and to perceive the world in those terms is to assume an ending for every social scenario… If the poor people march on Washington and camp out, there to receive bundles of clothes gathered on the Fox lot by Barbra Streisand, then some good must come of it (the script here has a great many dramatic staples, not the least of them in a sentimental notion of Washington as an open forum, cf. Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington), and doubts have no place in the story.
The unwelcome presence of doubt is, of course, the fatal diagnosis of all systems that warp reality and flatten its complexities by leaving no room for nuance — systems like the Hollywood of that era, which has hardly changed in ours, and the mainstream media of today, who tend to depict the world by the same “dramatic convention” of clickbait and sensationalism adding nothing to the actual conquest of meaning.
Reflecting on Hollywood’s “vanity of perceiving social life as a problem to be solved by the good will of individuals,” Didion recounts the particular pretensions she observed at a national convention of the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce, commonly known as Jaycees — a leadership and civic engagement training organization for young people — held at LA’s Miramar Hotel:
In any imaginative sense Santa Monica seemed an eccentric place for the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce to be holding a national congress, but there they were, a thousand delegates and wives, gathered in the Miramar Hotel for a relentless succession of keynote banquets and award luncheons and prayer breakfasts and outstanding-young-men forums… I was watching the pretty young wife of one delegate pick sullenly at her lunch. “Let someone else eat this slop,” she said suddenly, her voice cutting through not only the high generalities of the occasion but The New Generation’s George M. Cohan medley as well.
It bears noting that this took place a decade and a half before the Jaycees began accepting women as members, so any female presence at the convention was invariably allotted to such pretty young wives — including this one, whom Didion proceeded to see “sobbing into a pink napkin.”
Illustration from 'How to Be a Nonconformist,' 1968. Click image for more.
But what makes Didion’s essay doubly poignant is the way in which she gets at — obliquely, unambiguously — how Hollywood’s chronic biases permeate the rest of society. Having gone to the Jaycees national convention “in search of the abstraction lately called ‘Middle America,'” she found instead a mirroring of Hollywood’s superficial and performative approaches to social justice issues. Didion writes:
At first I thought I had walked out of the rain and into a time warp: the Sixties seemed not to have happened.
Nearly half a century later, one can’t help but feel pulled into the very same time warp — Didion could have written this today:
They knew that this was a brave new world and [the Jaycees] said so. It was time to “put brotherhood into action,” to “open our neighborhoods to those of all colors.” It was time to “turn attention to the cities,” to think about youth centers and clinics and the example set by a black policeman-preacher in Philadelphia who was organizing a decency rally patterned after Miami’s. It was time to “decry apathy.”
The word “apathy” cropped up again and again, an odd word to use in relation to the past few years, and it was a while before I realized what it meant. It was not simply a word remembered from the Fifties, when most of these men had frozen their vocabularies: it was a word meant to indicate that not enough of “our kind” were speaking out. It was a cry in the wilderness, and this resolute determination to meet 1950 head-on was a kind of refuge. Here were some people who had been led to believe that the future was always a rational extension of the past, that there would ever be world enough and time enough for “turning attention,” for “problems” and “solutions.” Of course they would not admit their inchoate fears that the world was not that way any more. Of course they would not join the “fashionable doubters.” Of course they would ignore the “pessimistic pundits.” Late one afternoon I sat in the Miramar lobby, watching the rain fall and the steam rise off the heated pool outside and listening to a couple of Jaycees discussing student unrest and whether the “solution” might not lie in on-campus Jaycee groups. I thought about this astonishing notion for a long time. It occurred to me finally that I was listening to a true underground, to the voice of all those who have felt themselves not merely shocked but personally betrayed by recent history. It was supposed to have been their time. It was not.
Reading Didion’s astute observations many decades later, at a time when so many of us feel just as “personally betrayed by recent history,” reaffirms the The White Album as absolutely essential reading for modern life — not merely because its title is all the more uncomfortably perfect in light of this particular essay, but because every single essay in it directs the same unflinching perceptiveness at some timeless and timely aspect of our world.
Complement it with Didion’s reading list of all-time favorite books and her answers to the Proust Questionnaire.
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