Saturday, March 31, 2012

What Whitney Houston's Death Tells Us About Female Stars of Yesteryear

By Mary Claire Kendall
Whitney Houston performs at the O2 Arena on April 25, 2010 in London, England. 
(Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images) 

Whitney Houston seemingly had it all—beauty, poise, charm and most of all that voice penetrating the depths of one’s soul—America’s soul.

Why is it, then, that this alpha female with epic talent lost it all at such a young age?

It will take months, even years, to wrap our minds around this tragedy. But, by putting her life and death into the historical context of stars going back to Hollywood’s inception, the picture becomes a little clearer.

Women of the “Golden Age of Film” (1912-1962) maintained an inner strength that stars like Houston in the late 20th/early 21st century lost because our culture is ailing. While claiming to uphold and reaffirm women, it ends up destroying that very something that’s the source of a woman’s strength. Losing that essence, Houston was seemingly reaching for a chemical substitute.

Of course, substance abuse has always plagued Hollywood. Often, the greater the artistry the more susceptible the artist to the chemical siren call. Whitney had high anxiety—never thought she was good enough—and alcohol and drugs helped alleviate this stress.

The habit intensified after she filmed The Bodyguard, conspiring, along with cigarettes, to destroy her voice. Similarly, Judy Garland, dead at age 47, suffered anxiety—didn’t think her voice was that good either—and sought refuge in alcohol and drugs. (Admittedly, MGM shares some credit, feeding her drugs to stay thin, sleep, wake up, stay energized.)

Marilyn Monroe and Margaret Sullavan, too, both died too young—at ages 36 and 50, respectively—of drug overdoses. And, Mabel Normand—who made films with Mack Sennett (famous for The Keystone Cops), directing a young Charlie Chaplin—became addicted to Roaring 20s all-night partying drenched with alcohol and cocaine. Her world came crashing down along with the stock market; she was dead at age 34.

Still, there’s a palpable difference in the lives of Hollywood women, now and then.

Mary Pickford, who dominated the silent film era, for whom the term “star” was coined, had her own studio at Paramount Pictures, co-founded Universal Pictures and practically invented the business framework under which Hollywood still operates.

Pickford started working at age 6 after her father’s untimely death plunged the family into poverty. She never thought of herself as a woman or a man, just as a competent individual, trying to survive, working to be her best—in a cultural milieu that from today’s perspective almost seems like a Garden of Eden.

But, even in the Garden of Eden, there was the battle of the sexes. In Hollywood it’s as fierce as ever. Though women were foundational to Hollywood’s establishment, when the business became so glamorous and financially rewarding, the men simply took over.

Pickford suffered a double blow given the difficult transition from silent film, a heart-rending reality brilliantly captured in this year’s critical favorite The Artist. “… (J)ust as she was the first great star to be created by film, she was the first great ‘has been’ to be created by film. And everyone watched it.

There was no privacy there,” Eileen Whitfield, author of Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, told American Experience. More than the loss of her career, she was publicly humiliated when her beloved husband DouglasFairbanks, Jr. fled, landing in the arms of a woman twelve years her junior. “When a man finds himself sliding downhill,” Fairbanks said, “he should do everything to reach bottom in a hurry and pass out of the picture.”

Like her Hennessy ancestors, Mary initially sought solace in intoxicating spirits.
But, she survived—personally, marrying Buddy Rogers, and dying at age 87. 

So too did Betty Hutton, the fifth anniversary of whose death at age 86 falls on March 11—one month after Houston’s death.

Hutton’s descent from the pinnacle of her career—epitomized by her starring role in Annie Get Your Gun (1950)—was as dramatic as Houston’s. As she toldAP, twenty years after foolishly tearing up her Paramount contract, “Uppers, downers, inners, outers, I took everything I could get my hands on.” Then one night she collapsed on stage at a dinner theater outside Boston where she was reprising her Annie Oakley role.  Not exactly Broadway. She was down to 85 pounds.

Miraculously, she met this saintly priest, Fr. Peter Maguire, who just happened to be checking in his cook at the same rehab center where Hutton was recuperating.  Fr. Maguire understood all her pain—and helped her cherish just “being Betty” and discover, as she told Turner Classic Movie’s Robert Osbourne, “Christ is my heart.”

Perhaps Whitney, who also knew Christ was her heart, never found that someone who understood her pain.

But, isn’t about time, that as a culture, we try and understand that, as Hemingway told his friend A.E. Hotchner, “The worst death for anyone is to lose the center of his being, the thing he really is… Whether by choice or by fate, to retire from what you do—and what you do makes you what you are—is to back up into the grave.” – Papa Hemingway

And, for a woman, that includes just “being” who you are.

Mary Claire Kendall writes about stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” with a special focus on their stories of recovery.