Saturday, October 21, 2006

Warum Ist Veronika Immer So Verboten?

Like most homosexual men (yes, that would be what I am if you’ve not already heard), I have a weakness for once glamorous, gorgeous and famous women who fall upon hard times. There are obvious choices such as Judy Garland, Norma Desmond, Libby Holman, Edie Sedgewick, Marianne Faithful, Nico, Billie Holiday and on and on… Unfortunately these aren’t quite as achingly political and potentially obscure as the type of women I long for. And I sort of like the dual stars of those women who perish penniless and pathetic on the streets (Nico and Edie would come close to fitting that bill) and those that make a miraculous comeback (Marianne’s sort of in that category).

I think it was that theme that first introduced me to Fassbinder. Like many Americans, I only starting seeing his films just as his career and life were coming to an end. I’m pretty certain Veronika Voss is the first time I saw a Fassbinder flick in its original release. This take on the life of Sybille Schmitz, who had been an UFA star of the Third Reich and supposed lover of Goebbels is an easy place to start with Fassbinder since it’s one of his best looking films and recalls both Weimar films and classic Hollywood. It would take me a while to warm up to the muddier look of the larger body of his work. When I did I’d dismiss Veronika Voss as too easy and pretty of a film, but I’ve come to reassess it as a truly great work.

It’s been said that Fassbinder aped or paid homage to many Hollywood classics such as Sunset Boulevard and All That Heaven Allows. Had he lived I wonder if we might have seen a Fassbinder take on Valley of the Dolls?

In the recent 2-disc, deluxe reissue of that film, the silly columnist Ted Casablanca ruminates on who he would cast in a remake. I say, why make it a Hollywood film and why make it in English? If I were to make it, I’d make it in Japanese and there is one woman I think made for the role of Helen Lawson – Yoshiko (Shirley) Yamaguchi. Ms. Yamaguchi could also easily be the Japanese version of Veronika Voss (or for that matter Zarah Leander) but with a very different post-war path.

Her story goes something like this: Yamaguchi was born to Japanese parents in Manchuria in 1920. She used the Chinese name Li Xianglan (Ri Koran in Japanese) and made pro-Japanese films in Japanese-occupied areas in China. She also was a popular singer and some of her hits, including "Fragrance of the Night" (Ye Lai Xiang), remain popular even today. After the Japanese surrendered she escaped treason and possible execution by revealing her Japanese heritage. After her marriage to famed Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, they moved into a house in Kita-Kamakura provided by Japanese potter and epicure Kitaoji Rosanjin. She would go on to be a sort of Japanese Barbra Walters, hosting a morning talk show and covering the American occupation of Vietnam in the 1960s. She was elected to the first of several terms in the House of Councillors, the upper body of Japan's parliament in 1974. Her life story has been made into a musical that has appeared on Tokyo stages.

She also has appeared on Broadway and in a couple of American movies set in Japan such as
House of Bamboo. Darn, but I would love to see that musical of her life brought to the US Or, alternately her braying “The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that's ME, baby, remember? ..” in Japanese.

So Shirley’s about 86 now, and apparently still active. Up in the years, perhaps, but I think she still has the stuff for this remake of a classic bad movie.

One might argue that there are several tarnished American women out there for a similar role. Perhaps Peggy Noonan, the Leni Reifenstahl of the Reagan Reich? She’d be good as Helen with the ever rabid Ann Coulter in the Neely O'Hara role with Mark Foley as her gay husband? Man, wouldn’t it be fun to see her screaming in the alley during Neely’s breakdown scene? Ah, well, in the meantime, I’ll take comfort in viewing this site celebrating Yoshiko's career and wish my Japanese was a little bit better.