This week I learned that the legendary Marta Becket passed away in January. I had no idea. I visited her opera house for the first time on Christmas Eve but her impact on my life hit back around 2009-2010.
I was divorced and had left my beloved Santa Monica for a studio in Koreatown with an actual paper-thin Murphy bed that folded down from the wall and was possibly the kind of bed you get in hell. I hated my new neighborhood, I was free but alone, I was nursing yet another heartbreak and creatively things couldn’t have been bleaker. I used to sit in the generic apartment-furnished armchair, staring out at the brick building next door, where people would literally scream out of their windows at all hours for reasons unknown. Because they could, I guess.
My mom told me about this amazing documentary she’d seen called Amargosa and I immediately ordered it from Netflix. On DVD. When I saw it, I was deeply moved by Marta’s story – one of a frustrated artist who took a giant leap into the unknown to create something that didn’t make any sense at the time. She left her metropolitan New York world behind to settle in Death Valley and refurbish a dilapidated performance hall, where she danced to a crowd that she literally painted on the walls – because there was no audience – until National Geographic discovered her.
The story of a woman without an opportunity to create the kind of work she wanted to, stepping off the grid to start living a different kind of story, spoke volumes to me. I felt the stirrings of something akin to that for myself or the idea, at least, that something else might be possible. As soon as I finished the documentary I rushed to find out if Marta was still alive and performing. She was, but she was heading into her final performances of the The Sitting Down Show because she could no longer dance and was ready to retire. I was determined to be there but a winter storm hit; those isolated Valley roads were flooded, nearly impassable, and phone lines were down. The Amargosa website warned of treacherous travel and I sadly abandoned the idea.
Several years passed. I sort of forgot about visiting the opera house although Marta remained an inspiration to me. I thought of her often, whenever I floundered around wondering what the hell I was doing in Hollywood. Every time the thought arose that I should create my own work, forge my own path, I would beat it down with resistance but then Marta would be there, like a beacon in the background. More time passed. I saw Diane Bell’s first film, Obselidia, and its scenes at the Amargosa Opera House reminded me that Marta’s legacy was still there…waiting.
Cut to December, 2016. Bone weary, shattered, burned out in every possible way…I’m in the middle of packing up my life in a limited number of boxes that I can snail-mail home to Boston. I’m finally calling it quits. A friend has come to stay and this is my camping/hiking/national park exploring friend. The one who will join me on any wilderness adventure. Each time we meet, we excitedly plan where to go next. We know we have a short window this time. We’re both exhausted. It needs to be a place we can drive to in a day and one that won’t be closed from all of the snow. Then it hits me: Death Valley. All those years in California and I still hadn’t been. They were at the tail end of a winter storm and about to get hit with some epic flooding but we had just the right amount of time to miss the worst.
We hit the road late on Christmas Eve day and drove like demons to make the show. The opera house had confirmed via e-mail and phone that there was a dancer who was going to perform that night. Then there wasn’t because she’d been injured. Then there was because they were mistaken or at any rate she was still going to perform. We didn’t have time for any pit stops. We ate snacks in the car. The two-lane road out to Death Valley Junction was pitch black with no cell service, my aging car was insistently fogging up in the rain and we’d hit huge pockets of flooding that were impossible to see ahead of time. We nearly missed the opera house because the valley was so dark but we swerved in and I jumped out to tell them we were there. There was no time for a bathroom or food or even to buy our tickets. Marta’s personal assistant was manning the door. She said to go over to the hotel afterwards to pay for our seats but, for now, to enjoy the show.
The opera house was toasty from the wood-burning stove and I couldn’t get over the rough wood floors or the detailed murals. It was beautiful. The assistant spoke to the small audience of tourists, telling us that Marta still lived on the grounds and that she was too ill to come over but that she knew we were there and that “she is happy” we were. A young Dominican dancer had been tapped by Marta to perform. She explained in broken English how grateful she was because, in her home country, the opportunity to dance was non-existent. She danced a short program from Marta’s past, including some of Marta’s own choreography. She wore Marta’s costumes – delightfully out-of-style – and there were long pauses while she changed. A little dog in the audience quietly growled whenever a new costume appeared. The ballerina danced in front of scenery that Marta painted. The faded red curtain opened and closed jerkily. The dancer’s pointe shoes were worn to shreds. The entire experience felt like pure anthropology and I held both joy and sorrow in my heart.
Afterwards we walked over to the hotel and someone opened a vacant room for me so I could finally use a bathroom. The room was scrubbed clean but old and in some disrepair. We wandered around the hotel filled with Marta’s photos and memorabilia. We were left to ourselves in the vacant gift shop. The lobby had a Christmas tree, a cat lounging on a desk, and a guy playing the guitar for his friends. Finally an employee appeared at the front desk and seemed pleasantly surprised that we had stuck around to pay for our tickets. We were starving but there was still no cell service. I asked the employee if she could give us directions to a restaurant somewhere and she told us that the hotel’s cafe was serving a complimentary Christmas Eve dinner, courtesy of Marta.
I think walking into that cafe on Christmas Eve was the moment when, on a micro level, I started to heal from the burn-out of the previous few years. People from all over the world were gathered at the counter and tables. The employees were warm and welcoming and explained the menu. When they found out we were Vegetarians they said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” Even now, I cry when I think of it. To be in a place that meant so much to me as an artist, to be exploring a part of our American wilderness, to be surrounded by fellow travelers on a holiday eve…it was pure gratitude. Pure joy. I was remembering the core of who I was – the things I actually care about, the values that actually mean something to me. It wasn’t about booking a guest star or walking the red carpet or getting the next audition. It was about being in the world. Being present. Being loved.
Marta Becket changed my life because she lived hers with full authenticity. She surrendered to her art and allowed it to move her where it wished instead of trying to control or resist the outcome. She taught me that it’s not only possible to forge my own path – it’s desirable. I am forever grateful for her life and work.
30/52 WOMEN HE’S UNDRESSED
I have been waiting for this. Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong is one of my favorite directors of all-time. You know her from such beautiful films as Oscar and Lucinda, Little Women, Charlotte Gray and My Brilliant Career (this one is a MUST SEE). However, Armstrong hasn’t made a narrative feature since 2007 and the reasons are becoming familiar as I research and watch these films by women. The issues are a lack of funding and opportunities for women filmmakers and films, of overblown corporate studio systems that get in the way of making good films and, most of all, the wasteland that exists when it comes to finding a solid script. Armstrong has been outspoken about the fact that, for many years, she hasn’t found one decent narrative story to make. The scripts that come her way are “banal” and “predictable after the first ten pages.” She believes the best writers are mostly in television now (true) and laments the dearth of great dramatic and character-driven theatrical films.
Like Debra Granik, whom I also featured on this blog, Armstrong has turned her hand to documentaries, where there is a wealth of wonderful stories to be told on less expensive budgets. This week her latest documentary was released on VOD and it tells the story of Orry-Kelly, the incomparable yet mostly unknown Hollywood costume designer, who also hailed from Australia. Although you may not know his name, you have definitely seen his work, as he designed for everyone from Bette Davis to Marilyn Monroe to Ingrid Bergman to Katharine Hepburn to Jane Fonda. He also had a profound influence on some of our best costume designers working today, such as Ann Roth (The English Patient), Colleen Atwood (Chicago) and Catherine Martin (The Great Gatsby).
This film is fascinating on a few levels. As a lover of Old Hollywood film history, I couldn’t get enough of the inside scoop on the behind-the-scenes drama of the studio system. There are tons of juicy tidbits about actors such as Bette Davis, who is one of my artistic heroes and who was a close collaborator with Kelly. The fashion and glamour is a feast for the eyes. But, most of all, Kelly was one of the few openly gay and working members of the Hollywood system at a time when the LGBT community was often ostracized and blacklisted. And Kelly carried a powerful personal secret to his grave that I won’t spoil for you if you haven’t seen the film.
Armstrong went on a long hunt for a lost memoir of Kelly’s, which she finally located and which is finally going to be published. Her sources are first-hand–both Kelly’s own writing about his life and other artists who actually worked with him. Armstrong employs actors in stylized re-enactments of certain scenes; it’s a bit jolting at first but stick with it. Eventually it dawned on me that, as a master of her craft, Armstrong made a precise choice in how to tell her story and it all serves her subject matter perfectly in the end. It’s an emotionally compelling and entertaining ride through old Hollywoodland and I’m thrilled to see new work from this director I love.