(JOHN F. KENNEDY’S INFORMAL APPOINTMENT OF DEAN MARTIN TO HIS CABINET)
What the fuck did they want, these men who needed the
company of others to make a life, as he needed a woman
to make babies?
—Dino, nick tosches
I always plays to de common folk.
It was casting time for The Young Lions.
Brando wouldn’t hesitate given this chance to dye
his hair white and do a German
accent. And while no one would hire Monty Clift
after his facially disfiguring car-wreck,
Brando convinced the studio that the other, slightly
older, kid from Omaha was the right man.
No one could play a more sensitive-tough than Monty,
like the artist-bugler-boxer Prewitt
mistaken for the enemy, gunned down
by his own men in the Pearl Harbor dawn;
or the way, as the seraphic cowboy Matt Dunson,
he got a rise out of his demented empire builder
father, John Wayne, by kicking over a tin cup,
sloshing the coffee into the dust to show his disgust.
Clift knew that Lions director Edward Dmytryk
was searching for someone to play a key
supporting role—as Frank Sinatra had in From Here To
Eternity—yet he was stunned to hear it was
“Jerry Lewis’s partner in shlock.”
Clift softened, nauseated when he saw
pander to the crowd on Broadway.
Lucky for Monty that he let it go: the two men
not only became friends; it was Dean
who put the man with the wired-jaw to bed
when he had the chloral hydrate and alcohol wobblies.
Ignorant of Brando’s intervention on his behalf,
Monty told Dean that Marlon’s fifty takes per scene
were getting on his nerves more and more
and he vowed to walk off the set if he tried
ONE MORE TIME to have his German soldier die
with arms spread wide to “echo the crucifixion.”
Clift, wasted with self-recrimination at forty-five.
Martin, an actor for whom one run through a scene
almost always sufficed.
Dean got a chuckle out of Monty with his response.
“It should be awful good with so many takes.”
Then the future flashed before him.
“I guess there are directors who want us to do
the same scene over and over again too.”
“Sure, lots. Some of the best.”
“I guess I got spoiled. Jerry and I got
to where we pretty much called the shots.”
And then—without any foreknowledge
that he’d be doing his only two other
serious roles in the next two years
and be subject to directorial rule on the sets of
Some Came Running and Rio Bravo—
he vowed in the future to set up his golf net
before shooting started on a picture.
Dean appeared to float, perfection
never an aspiration: that he was already as well known
for his insouciance and drunk persona as for
his singing and acting doesn’t mean he was so well-defended
that he didn’t feel any pressure about working
with such aces as Brando and Clift.
He didn’t have to stretch to play a would-be draft dodger,
Michael Whiteacre: “a likeable coward like myself,”
a screenwriter in Shaw’s novel, a singer in the movie.
The army doctor feeds Dean his first line in Lions
as if his future were visible in the instant:
art and life exquisitely commingled.
Doctor: “For a man your age and in your profession
you’re in excellent health. How do you manage it?”
Martin doesn’t hesitate: “Clean liquor.”
But sauntering through this role didn’t mean
everything was swell: he felt so out-of-place
on location in France he gave up the offer of
a choice part in The Guns of Navarone
because it meant going back to Europe.
In his middle years, he ambled through the role
of “Matt Helm” in another toneless
Bondian takeoff, and when Columbia
wanted to shoot Murderers’ Row
on location in Cannes, Dino
set the studio straight: “fuck no,
just build some fake Riviera sets.”
A diffident crooner, he needed a stooge.
License to fuck around on stage.
After his split with Jerry, Dino’s drunk persona grew
into a ghostly partner, and by the time he had his own TV show
the public was so saturated with his presence,
many conflated the persona and the person.
When he landed the drunk’s key role in Rio Bravo,
he turned to Brando for help, “what should I do?”
Brando told him what to think about.
The more inscrutable the subject
the more this spectre stands out in relief.
Part of Martin’s appeal was that no one knew him.
It wasn’t a mask; his detachment was who he was.
He showed up, his spirit remained elsewhere.
His wives and children found him unknowable.
It wasn’t personal. When the Martins entertained,
the guests carried on while Dino disappeared
into his room to watch westerns on TV, alone.
It wasn’t personal. When the producer of
“The Colgate Comedy Hour” suggested they have lunch
to get to know one another, Dino
set him straight: “No one gets to know me.”
Martin was a man no one came close to knowing.
What does it mean, to know someone?
Why ask such questions at all after Socrates
beguiled us out of answers and set us on
the inexhaustible path...dialectics?
Don’t you think I haven’t wondered if I haven’t
strayed from my true path as I find myself
tracking the trajectory of such non-exemplary lives?
You’re thinking it’s a trick, and will not answer,
but before you judge my dissolute subject—
who like the money but thought all the attention
was a joke because “a singer is nothing”—
as a derelict choice, consider how philosophy,
while striving to become more concrete
continues to recoil before the problem of other minds.
And it is said that Monsieur Sartre turned paler
than his martini, when Raymond Aron
challenged the Husserlians, at the Bec de Gaz
in Montparnasse, to make philosophy
out of a cocktail glass.
There’s something about everyone no one can know.
There was no question of Dino taking orders
and being bossed around was out of bounds:
penalty shot incurred for the perpetrator,
who was, this time, the imperious Billy Wilder
whose streak of hits was breaking fast.
Dino as always was doing his job,
which was to literally play himself in Kiss Me,
Stupid, and Billy had the balls
to cap an interview at the Hollywood Press Club
with this tactless pearl: “stars don’t mean a thing.”
Was this because of what Stupid might have been
had Marilyn, whose presence he had counted on,
not done herself in? Was Wilder gambling
that fellow exiles from the Reich,
Lang, von Stroheim, and even the ghosts
of Lubitsch, Brecht and Thomas Mann
would have been there to applaud and acknowledge
that he, from a younger generation of German exiles,
was one of them?
Dino didn’t brood. Dino didn’t blow.
There would be no humiliating histrionics.
He would put Wilder in his place
with a letter, denouncing him as an arrogant
and self-important son-of-a-bitch.
Without angling for the director’s respect,
he got it, and more.
After six weeks of delectable footage
with Peter Sellers—whose American debut
was to have been in Stupid—
as the small town piano teacher
intent on writing a hit song
and enlisting Dino to “get it in the right hands”
the tetchy “thirty-nine year old actor had a massive
coronary,” yet not long after landing in Heathrow
found the breath to bitch to the press
about crowds on the set, wrote a letter
vilifying Wilder and Hollywood,
and swore never to return.
Wilder was used to being the abuser, not the abused.
He had to take it out on someone and no one better
to park at than Sellers’ replacement,
Ray Walston, as they reshot scenes.
Ray was cowed. Dino knew it.
Ray observed that Dino was never without a glass
in hand but assumed (wrongly) that it was filled
with ginger ale instead of vodka.
Which Dino was this, the persona or the person?
Dino advised Ray, IN A VOICE LOUD ENOUGH
SO THAT EVERYONE ONE THE SET COULD HEAR
to “tell that cocksucker to go fuck himself and do it your own way.”
Wilder went wild. Martin practice putting.
“If you wanted an actor, what the fuck did you get me for.
Why didn’t you get fucking Marlon Brando.”
It was as if Dino, who’d boxed in his youth
under the pseudonym “Kid Crochet,”
had sucker-punched the dictator, who found himself
disarmed by this unflappable and far from ugly,
American. Dino’s aplomb had Wilder
on the floor, howling with laughter, just as night-
club audiences used to crack up
out of sheer anticipation of the antics to come
while waiting for Martin and Lewis
to begin their act...which knew no limits.
They didn’t break rules, they made them up
as they went along, as when they leapt from the stage
followed by floodlights in Fort Lee, New Jersey,
to chase a slender tall brunette in a white dress
down the aisle, chanting, in imitation moron—
“we know where you’re going, we know where you’re going”—
because she had the nerve to leave her seat
before they’d finished their act.
She was mortified, but not for long.
They had no way of knowing that a young
woman who was that well put together
could be as painfully self-conscious
as this anonymous girl, who within a few
years would become my mother.
There is something beautiful and horrible
about Dino’s incarnation of cool.
Anger sublimated into a mask
that would not harden, could not crack.
Dino did not end in ruin, like the others.
His falling away was gradual.
His lifelong withdrawal, prelude to silence.
Henry Miller had finally gotten Tropic of Cancer
through the courts. He’d spent his life
in quest of freer spirits than his own,
and now, after Rimbaud and Lawrence
and The Colossus of Maroussi,
he found in Martin a priest of irreverence
who was beyond nihilism,
who shrugged off everything the doom culture
deemed valuable, and pulled strings to be
granted an audience with the man
who made heavy weather of nothing.
Driving home to the suburbs during rush hour
in the huge gas-guzzling cars that signified
America’s boom economy in the 1960’s,
married men without time sighed for the first
time all day when “Houston” came on the a.m.
Then, back in their gaudy palaces at last,
they stacked Martin’s LP’s
on the turntable while mixing martinis.
Was it the façade that never cracked, never changed guises?
And isn’t facade precisely the wrong term for one man’s
unchanging way of being in the world?
Dean would say that’s it’s a waste to waste this wasted
unasked for sojourn on earth thinking about shit
like what others think of us, or depressing shit,
like “the fucking Cold War or Vietnam,”
or rip-off artists like the Beatles
(“why do they spell it with an ‘a’?”).
Jealous? Never. Only annoyed that they kept bugging him
with questions. Why did he have to think?
Wasn’t it enough just to live? Dino didn’t work
to see his voice or image reproduced;
he acted, sang, and hosted shows, on screen
and in person, because it was easier than real
Dino liked his inflated wages, but money
meant nothing beyond what it could buy.
“A singer is nothing.” Why did he sing?
It was the easiest way to make a bundle.
When anyone complained that acting was hard word
Dino responded as Crocetti, the barber’s son
from Steubenville: “You think acting’s work?
Try standing on your feet
twelve hours a day dealing Blackjack.”
If you agree that Dino lived to live on his own terms,
and if his triumphs were in the significant films
where he had allowed himself to take
direction, listen, learn, tremble and transcend,
then his second greatest trope
after inventing himself
was convincing producers and directors
to let him play a character
who sang and drank and thought about golf more than god,
so that the actor and the part were entirely one.
His string of walk-through roles
was like a continuous aside
to his audience, dissolving the boundary
between actor and spectator
and giving birth to a suspect and shadowy intimacy.