As Tears Go By: The Soap Opera as Inspiration in Drama Queens
In a 1977 essay, high priestess of film theory Laura Mulvey praised the melodramas of Douglas Sirk for probing the pent-up emotion, bitterness and disillusion well known to women. Sirks impossible-love weepie, All That Heaven Allows, starring Jane Wyman as a middle-aged widow who falls for her much younger gardener (Rock Hudson), serves as the urtext of MOMAs clever, ambitious series devoted to this surfeit of feelingand its dismantlingin an often-overlooked source: avant-garde film and video from the past 70 years.
Besotted with Hollywood, Andy Warhol wryly recapitulated Tinseltown excess, glamour, and off-screen scandal. In Soap Opera (1964), Baby Jane Holzer, a honey-maned, 23-year-old Park Avenue socialite, silently performs a lovers spat over the telephone; the mute, emotionally overwrought segments of Warhols movie (which also includes face-slaps and crotch-rubbing) are interrupted by footage from old TV commercials pitching char-broiled steaks and Pillsbury cake mix. More loony incongruities abound in Hedy (1967), featuring Mario Montez, Warhols first drag-queen superstar, as Hedy Lamarr, the MGM goddess who had recently been arrested for shoplifting. I must be beautiful because I am the most beautiful woman in the world, Hedy imperiously declares to her plastic surgeons. While the camera rapidly zooms in and out, Jack Smith leers in the background, the Velvet Underground tunes up off-camera, and the past-her-prime starlet endures handcuffs and humiliation, wondering, Where are my husbands now?
Where Warhol found inspiration in lurid Hollywood Babylon, others in the series become the stars of their own unhinged fantasy-worlds. Supremely bonkers yet always engrossing, Eleanor Antins 1976 video The Adventures of a Nurse (Parts I and II) stars the artist, dressed in an all-white nurses uniform, manipulating (and, in her Bronx bray, providing the voices for) foot-high, hand-painted paper dollsher actors in a romantic saga about altruistic Nurse Eleanor and her many swains, including a fragile poet, a Harley biker, and a louche French ski instructor. Antins work revels in sudser codes as much as it critiques the cliché of the self-abnegating heroine. Kalup Linzy, another creator and star of unclassifiable soapy spectacles, mines the bathos of the cell-phone conference call in Ride to da Club (2002), part of his Conversations wit de Churen series. A five-minute piece filled with memorably monikered hyphenatesBig-Dick Johnny, Cross-Eyed RayRide boasts more knowing, hilarious back-stabbing, sexual intrigue, and eye-rolling than Tyler Perry could ever hope to squeeze into a Madea feature.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.