Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Keen on Kenneth Tynan
Kenneth Tynan never fails to deliver. In my youth he was a symbol to me of the sexual revolution, of intelligent erotica and bons-mots-dripping wit. But I knew next to nil about him. His role in producing and editing Oh, Calcutta was a mystery to me. And I'm still not sure if I liked the show simply because it had a skit by John Lennon in it or because of its full-frontal nudity. Or maybe it was the subtlety of the title. The on dit is that it is meant to be "Oh, quel cul tu as." Or should that be "queue"? Which is far more appealing than the black hole of Calcutta.
Ã§us with such fresh, broad strokes. No dross in any piece by Tynan, even when the subject is not easily captured. Tynan used language the way a virtuoso might play a cello. By color, nuance, eccentricity, and economy. He wastes nothing, but leaves you starving for more. Take his take on Beatrice Lillie, for instance. He reaches far outside her bailiwick to capture her essence: "To call her an actress first and foremost is rather like calling Winston Churchill a bricklayer who has dabbled in politics." The throw-away line makes you stop and think, and ultimately want to know more.
And then there is the style of his thoughts, not just his prose. Tynan's mind flies from topic to topic, from personage to personage, from quip to quip. Most critics would be averse to quoting others in a profile, but Tynan laced his homages with generous helpings of famous people's anecdotes and observations. But always only when they were apt. Why not quote Marlene Dietrich on Dame Edith Evans? At first glance, it seems a stretch. But who else could surprise us so winningly when she says she was "over-awed" by the other actress. Dietrich overawed by anyone? Tynan suddenly makes Dame Edith Evans, who is perhaps best-known for playing the dragon-lady Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, almost sexy.
His highly personal paean to Louise Brooks established an entirely new school of feature-writing and reestablished her overnight into a star of the first magnitude. To read his profile of her now is to be struck by how innocent and how daringly honest he was. There's a shade of almost masturbatory voyeurism in his lubricious adulation:
"She has run through my life like a magnetic thread -- this shameless urchin tomboy, this unbroken, unbreakable porcelain filly. she is a prairie princess, equally at home in a waterfront bar and in the royal suite at Neuchwanstein; a creature of impulse, a creator of impulses, a temptress with no pretensions, capable of dissolving into a giggling fit at a peak of erotic ecstasy; amoral but totally selfless, with that sleek jet cloche of hair that rings such a peal of bells in my subconscious."
Very few writers could get away with the fawning idolatry that Tynan evinces in some of his critiques. I don't think I've ever read a so-called "straight" author as intrinsically "gay" as Kenneth Tynan. His accolades over Antonio Ordonez, the legendary and magnificently handsome Spanish bullfighter are almost embarrassing in their hero-worship, even though they are riddled with Tynan's profound knowledge and respect for the sport.Â But in spite of the homoerotic charge he clearly gets in watching Ordonez work, he gets under the skin of the beast: "It is not courage which makes Antonio unique, but gentleness. This may seem like a paradox, applied to a man who last year stabbed about a hundred and fifty bulls to death. Yet he kills with kindness; and he plays his bulls with a generosity that makes them colleagues, not enemies."
But Tynan can wax just as ecstatic over Miles Davis and Lenny Bruce, two legends who rarely figure in the echelons of camp. On Bruce, Tynan enthuses: "he used words as a jazz musician uses notes, going off into fantastic private cadenzas and digressions, and returning to his theme just when you thought he had lost track of it for ever." Not so much different from what I said about Tynan's own virtuosic style.