Let's Just Say It Wasn't Pretty
As I throw my coat on the chair, I see Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging on my living room wall. My first impression of President Lincoln came from a book I checked out of the Bushnell Way Elementary School library, Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to White House, by Sterling North. In it President Lincoln fought to free the slaves. He was a great man who paid the ultimate price. Mr. North described Pres-ident Lincoln as unsightly, even homely. To a ten-year-old girl, that meant President Lincoln was ugly. I didn’t understand how an ugly man could become the president of the United States. Gardner’s photograph, taken just days before Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre, contradicts North’s description of a man who got shortchanged in the looks department.
Dominated by a pair of eyes set in darkness, Lincoln’s face is magnificent. His left eye, engaged by what it sees, looks out with endless empathy, while his right eye tells a story that is harder to comprehend. The bottom half of his face, framed by two deep lines, singles out his prominent nose, but it’s those eyes, particularly the left eye, the caring eye, the engaged eye, that is so compelling. Or is it? As my own eyes drift across Lincoln’s wide forehead, I look back into the right eye, the one drawn toward reflection, and you know what I see? I see the darkness of a great calling.
Did President Lincoln’s face become magnificent because he accepted a grave responsibility that would lead to a tragic end? Or was it the angle of Mr. Gardner’s pose, the light, the patina? Was it good luck or a fortunate mistake? After living with Mr. Lincoln’s portrait for several years, I’ve come to this conclusion: his beauty, like the hidden cast of his right eye, became identifiable only after I included “unsightly” as a possible way of describing a beautiful face.
Sharing wall space with Abraham Lincoln are forty-seven other portraits of men I’ve collected over twenty-five years. I call them my prisoners. There’s Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of the artist Francesco Clemente, who presents his hands from under a black coat. There’s Marion Robert Morrison’s face before he became John Wayne. On the bottom left, Tony Ward is painted with mud. His hands frame his eyes. Maybe he’s sick of looking out from under the dirt. Maybe he doesn’t want to be painted into a shadow; maybe he’s tired of being Herb Ritts’s favorite model. The face of the Russian revolutionary and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky stares out in shaved-head resistance. He brings up longings. I’d carry his coattails. I’d be his lackey. Next to the kitchen door, Elvis Presley is sticking his tongue into a young woman’s mouth. I never understood why he made millions of girls cry until I saw Albert Wertheimer’s Kiss in an ad for Sam Shepard’s play Fool for Love.
Which brings up Sam Shepard, who is framed dead center among the other prisoners on my wall. I was thirty-one when I went to a matinee of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven at Cinema 1 on Third Avenue between Fifty-ninth and Sixtieth Streets in Manhattan. The movie seemed to glide though a brilliantly lit travelogue until Sam Shepard walked onto the screen and took my breath away. His face bore the imprint of the West in all its barren splendor. For years, I followed Sam’s life from the safety of distance, a fan’s distance. He was the playwright of Buried Child and True West. He worked with Bob Dylan. He was married. He fell out of marriage, and into love with Jessica Lange. He wrote, “When you’re looking for someone, you’re looking for some aspect of yourself, even if you don’t know it. What we’re searching for is what we lack.” And that’s the way it was. Some aspect of him was an aspect in me, an aspect I hadn’t developed, something I lacked. Or so I thought.
As life would have it, Sam slipped into the background until ten years later, when I inadvertently came across his face on a fifty-cent eight-by-ten glossy I bought at the Rose Bowl swap meet. The photograph was not exceptional except for one thing: Sam’s face. That damn face. A day doesn’t go by without a glance his way.
Gary Cooper also came to me in motion, but he wasn’t beautiful. What he was, was old. I saw him walking a dusty town’s deserted street toward four killers in Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 motion picture High Noon. The movie was told in “real time,” a time where events happened at the same rate that my ten-year-old eyes experienced them. Everything about the movie seemed super real. On Gary Cooper’s wedding day to Grace Kelly, he had a choice: he could either ride into the horizon with his pretty new bride or stay and face the killers. As a girl I didn’t think about Gary Cooper’s looks, or the difference between Grace Kelly’s age and his. I didn’t care. Would he ever see her again? Would he die? Did he have to be so brave? I remember their goodbye. I remember Tex Ritter singing “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’.” I remember crying. Looks weren’t the issue. Courage was. I didn’t know that courage was a form of beauty, but I must have felt it.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered Cecil Beaton’s photograph of a thirty-year-old drop-dead-gorgeous Gary Cooper. Beaton did more than document the awe-inspiring good looks; he somehow captured Gary Cooper’s awkward lack of calculation, his sweetness. Sometimes I compare the portraits of Gary Cooper and Sam Shepard. One photograph is of a man my age, still alive, still Sam. The other is an image of a legend I never met. Gary Cooper’s photograph is the work of an artist. Sam Shepard’s photograph is just another glossy eight-by-ten. Both, however, set off memories of milestone moments in movie theaters.
John Wayne’s is the youngest, most irresistible face framed behind glass. It’s ironic that he would become the ultimate symbol of the American male. There’s no hint of aspiration in his expression. He seems almost perplexed by the idea that someone is taking his picture. How could a football player from Glendale have imagined donning a big old ten-gallon hat for some guy with a Rolleiflex dangling around his neck? Before Gary Cooper and Sam Shepard, it was John Wayne, the Duke, who would walk through the western landscape and into the heart of Joan Didion, who describes him best: “We went three and four afternoons a week, sat on folding chairs in the darkened Quonset hut which served as a theater, and it was there, that summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, ‘at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.’ As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls that is still the line I wait to hear.”
All three men came and went as they walked through time on the screen. All three acted out stories written for the entertainment of the masses, particularly women like me. All three are icons. Now they’re incarcerated on my wall, where their beauty continues to evolve. Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Sam Shepard still take me to Joan Didion’s “bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.” They still give me hope for a house that can never be—a home that exists only in my dreams.
Warren Beatty is not one of the prisoners on my wall. He is a person I loved in real time, not reel, and not in a photograph. Real-life Warren was a collector’s item, a rare bird. He lived in a three-room, eight-hundred-square-foot penthouse on top of the Beverly Wilshire hotel. Littered with books and scripts, the place was not fancy. Yet he owned an unfinished Art Deco estate on a hilltop, and he claimed he was going to make it his home. He was always late and always meeting people, and always, always, always working on a script. He had aspirations I couldn’t begin to contemplate. You have to remember, I was Annie Hall. At that point I was happy to act in movies, not produce, star, and direct them while contemplating a political career. One moment Warren was stunning, especially from the right side; the next, I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about. These variables kept me curious. Was he a beauty or wasn’t he?
Yes. Warren was a beauty. That stood out with particular intensity during our bittersweet breakup. And wouldn’t you know it, it revolved around a photograph I saved but couldn’t find to put on my wall.
I was in Germany working on George Roy Hill’s The Little Drummer Girl in the early eighties. It was a difficult shoot. Picking me to play a British actress who finds herself embroiled in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was bad casting. Picture the poster: a silhouette of Diane Keaton with unusually well-endowed curves leaning against a semiautomatic rifle. Today you can buy it on eBay for a dollar ninety-nine, which is just about what The Little Drummer Girl made at the box office.
No matter how hard I tried to look butch holding an Uzi assault weapon or to master an English accent, I failed. To make matters worse, Warren and I weren’t speaking. On my days off, I would wander around Munich feeling sorry for myself. One Sunday at a flea market I came across a big picture book on the films of Warren Beatty. I bought it. Back in the hotel room, I cut out a picture of Warren from Bonnie and Clyde, folded it into small squares, put Warren in my jacket pocket, and brought him to work the next day. Before a particularly emotional scene, I took it out, unfolded Warren, and touched his face with my fingers. When I put my lips to his, all those months of straining for a crumb of feeling came flooding back. That’s what Warren’s face on the page of a broken-down book printed on cheap paper did to me before I shot a scene from The Little Drummer Girl.
At some point I lost the photo. In a way, I’m glad I did. It doesn’t belong with my other convicts. Warren was not a fantasy to ponder. I knew him well. He was not a mystery to contemplate. Sometimes I wonder if he enjoyed his beauty. Did he like what the mirror reflected? He knew that his pretty face, set on that masculine body, blessed with a great mind, would continue to seduce legions of women with incredible success decade after decade after decade. But did he know that, like all gifts, it came with a price tag?