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RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I am trying to account for how moved I was, one day recently, to come upon the grave of Tyrone Power. I had no vivid sense of him. I remember my mother spoke of his movies, and of Tyrone Power as her idea of a beautiful man.
It is possible in Los Angeles to go to the funeral of a friend and to come upon the graves of movie stars on one’s way back to the car. Actors not thought about in years are suddenly summoned by the names that appear underfoot. L.A. is a city of perpetual spring, a common place.
But any visitor to L.A. notices almost immediately the scent of decay, whiffs of over-ripeness. In Beverly Hills, tourists buy star maps that are guides to the necropolis. And yet the movie industry works constantly against death and against nature. Celluloid, after all, confers a kind of immortality. And what we call our real memory becomes confused with what never was, and still is.
Tonight on a distant cable channel, Eleanor Powell is dancing with Fred Astaire. Marlene Dietrich used to declaim to interviewers that movies were all about face. In middle age, Dietrich took to the stage to tease our memory of her image on the screen. When her body would no longer sustain the illusion, she retreated to a dark apartment in Paris and waited to die.
In “Dark Lover,” a biography of Rudolph Valentino published last year, Emily Leider describes the sudden transformation of Rodolfo Guglielmi, an Italian immigrant, into a world-famous silent film lover. Rodolfo Guglielmi died of a ruptured ulcer when he was 31 years old, but Rudolph Valentino became an immortal. People who never knew him committed suicide. A mob stormed the funeral home in New York where his body lay in state. As his corpse was transported by train to Hollywood, American housewives stood like Greek furies to attend its sad progress.
To come upon the graves of the dead is to face an ancient lesson, that death takes us all. But to come upon the crypt of Marilyn Monroe is to rob us of the lesson. She cheated death by dying so young. Her tragedy will always be fresh. Movies favor the young– the ease of the young, their solemnity, the carelessness of the young. Middle-aged actors say it all the time: For them, the roles do not come. This cemetery right behind the Paramount lot is called, not tongue in cheek, I think, “Hollywood Forever.”
ACTOR: You’re Norma Desmond. Used to be in silent pictures, used to be big.
ACTRESS: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: It was at paramount that “Sunset Boulevard” was filmed, the story of a silent film actress crazed by the intractability of time. “Sunset Boulevard” was the first film to notice the bitterness of those who are no longer called, and the decay underlying perpetual spring.
At this year’s Academy Awards, as every year, after the promenade of beauty, after all the sentimentalities of a cruel business are rehearsed, the year’s harvest of death will be accounted. We will see Bob Hope and Katherine Hepburn and Gregory Peck, restored to their youth. Most touching will be those faces of minor actors we haven’t seen for decades, but who had been so true to us in those years when we lived among dancing sophisticates and pirates and kings and the open road. To come upon the grave of Tyrone Power is to remember ourselves when we were young… ( knock at door )
ACTRESS: Oh, go quickly!
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: …Is to remember my mother when she was young and beautiful, and she sat in a dark movie theater– a life of romance that would never end. I’m Richard Rodriguez.