The MOM Who Knew Too Much

        Robert Osborne, the long-time TV host for Turner Classic Movies, recently took a sabbatical, and a whole slew of aged actors and actresses have rallied round to fill in for their friend in introducing the movies and delivering tidbits of trivia to the audiences. As long as Osborne is taking a break and TCM is scrambling for replacements, I know exactly who they ought to hire: my mother. 
             This might sound a little silly, but I’m convinced it would be a very smart move for TCM. My mom is not famous and never deliberately made film her hobby. However, she has an uncanny capacity for remembering all sorts of interesting facts.  She doesn’t try to; she may hear something in passing just once, and remember it simply by chance.  As she’s a fan of old movies, she happens to know a prodigious amount of in-depth trivia about the entertainment industry of yesteryear. The following, for instance, is a typical scenario:
            “Mom,” I will ask as I turn on the old movie channel, “Who’s that actor? He looks awfully familiar.”
            My mother will lower her book, glance up over the edge of her glasses and, after peering intently at the fellow in question, confidently announce: “Oh! That’s so-and-so. You remember him from that Western. Later he went on to star in that mediocre ‘60’s show, which was very popular, and ran for years . . . and actually his costar in that—before she dyed her hair red—won an Emmy for her performance in that other show. . . that was before she married that fellow who was involved in the environmentalist movement.”
            When I was younger I would stare at her a minute with my mouth open. Now, I typically turn back to my movie, and reply simply, “Oh. That’s who it is.”
This little game—like having my own personal Robert Osborne sitting next to me—can make even mediocre old movies lots of fun for an incorrigible movie buff like me—sometimes. But often, I beg my mother not to tell me anything, because of one persistent problem: too much of the trivia is tragic. For example:
“Oh, look!” said my mother the other day, “That’s Tippi Hedren, the star of The Birds. You know, she was mauled by a lion . . .”
I rolled my eyes and groaned.  It’s not that I’m without sympathy for poor Tippi—quite the contrary, in fact—but this sort of thing seems to happen too often. When we spot a famous actor or actress, my mother will call to mind some particularly sorrowful point about their lives, spouses, childhoods, or deaths.
Now, I like trivia as much as the next person. But the problem is that, with me—as with my mother—it sticks, like gum on the bottom of a shoe. And so, for instance, when I sit down to watch funnyman Lou Costello play the fool, I suddenly remember that Lou was completely heartbroken when his infant son drowned.  Or instead of soaking up Pat Boone’s smooth, rich singing voice, I think of the tragedy surrounding his grandson. I watch the lovely Shelley Winters and recall she wound up a fat alcoholic. Ann Margaret’s dancing makes me think of her falling off the stage at Las Vegas and suffering severe injuries.
In fact, there almost isn’t a single famous face in classic film that doesn’t hide some personal tragedy. Every stunning silver-screen beauty or dapper Hollywood dan, no matter how famous, talented, or successful, had some suffering to bear: childhoods robbed by stardom, battles with addictions, painful illnesses, sudden tragic accidents, the bitter wages of infidelity or the heartaches caused by the deaths of loved ones.
Perhaps, then, my mother doesn’t really know too much about these Hollywood celebrities, but exactly what we ought to know about them. How can you really understand a human soul unless you have some sense of how he’s suffered? Since the start of cinema, American audiences tend to idolize the faces shining with the meteoric glory of stardom. Teens fall in love with them. Adults imitate their styles and fashions. Everyone wants to be them. A little trivia, however—a little truth—can sober us up from this detrimental idolatry, and remind us that they may be superstars, but they’re not supermen. No one, certainly no one in the celebrity spotlight, has a perfect life, free of tragedy and error. They all make mistakes and have their own crosses to carry. They suffer as much as any man on the street; sometimes, as they reap the fruit of their sins, they suffer more.
So maybe I shouldn’t complain when my mother mentions that Vivien Leigh battled mental illness, or that Clark Gable never really recovered from the death of his wife, or, as you all now know, that Tippi Hedren was mauled by a lion. Maybe it’s a needed counterbalance to keep my love of film from extending to idolizing film actors. They need neither our adulation nor our voyeuristic obsession with their romantic escapades and latest haircut. Living or dead, they need our prayers. And that is something else I hope to pick up from my mother along with the movie trivia: the habit of praying for suffering souls. Maybe TCM won’t hire her after all; but I know she’s praying for Robert Osborne and everyone filling in for him when she recalls the little facts she knows about their lives. 

One comment

  1. They need neither our adulation nor our voyeuristic obsession with their romantic escapades and latest haircut. Living or dead, they need our prayers. And that is something else I hope to pick up from my mother along with the movie trivia: the habit of praying for suffering souls.



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