Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sex Scenes: Sex and Drugs and My Way

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Sex Scenes: Sex and Drugs and My Way

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the Sinatra standard “My Way,” while sitting in the balcony of an art house in Denver, chain-smoking Benson & Hedges ultra-light menthols, staring nearly hypnotized by the sight of sexy Gary Oldman transforming himself into the swaggering embodiment of punk rock, tearing through both cover song and screen. “Sid and Nancy” (along with Howard Deutch’s “Pretty In Pink” which also came out in 1986, and Martha Coolidge’s 1983 “Valley Girl”) was nothing less than a revelation to this teenager with Aqua-netted hair, Doc Martins and ripped fishnets, because it actually portrayed “my people,” spoke to me in my own musical language.

And my feeling of identification probably was not unlike that experienced by a certain segment of the movie-going public 31 years before Alex Cox paid tribute to the junkie romance of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, who witnessed another tale of fucked-up love, possible homicide, and enduring heroin chic. Heartthrob Frank Sinatra would not sing “My Way” in Otto Preminger’s groundbreaking 1955 “The Man With The Golden Arm,” but he would play the fictional Frankie Machine, another lean and hungry musician of dubious talent weighed down by both a needy blonde and a monkey on his back.

With a sizzling jazz score by Elmer Bernstein as perfectly wedded to image as Joe Strummer’s powerful sound is in Cox’s film, and with production design every bit as hyper-real as the addict’s hallucination style of “Sid and Nancy,” Preminger’s movie, like Cox’s, uses its sleek, feline, magnetic lead to shed light on a hapless guy unwittingly the helpless victim of his own charm, a plaything to both ruthless women and greedy men who take advantage of his naïve nature. Sinatra’s Frankie is a kindhearted, charismatic card dealer just out of rehab, trying to follow his dream of being a drummer, but he’s stuck with a scheming wife in a wheelchair (Eleanor Parker, who seems to be doing a camp version of a Tennessee Williams heroine) and a sometime employer/drug dealer (the appropriately slimy Darren McGavin) who uses heroin as an ace in the hole to control the fragile Frankie.

Sid likewise was just a young, working class punk who suddenly found himself stuck with a scheming groupie/junkie/drug dealer (played by Chloe Webb who manages to make Nancy both annoying and endearing), a bass he could barely play, and a Machiavellian manager in the form of Malcolm McLaren who used all the Sex Pistols band members as his own personal puppets. Sid never wanted to be a nihilist icon any more than Frankie wants to deal cards; they’re just so damn alluring, so good at what they do, that others demand it!

And pretty soon the lifestyle – including heroin – they’ve nodded into becomes all they know. Tellingly, the most sexually fraught scenes in “The Man With The Golden Arm” occur not between Frankie and his mistress Molly, played by va-va-voom Kim Novak, but between Frankie and his dealer Louie. It’s Louie who is forever massaging Frankie’s back when he’s tired, intimately cooing in his ear like a lover, taking him arm in arm back to his flat as Frankie swivels his head like a two-timing spouse, for he’s more nervous being seen alone with Louie than with Molly. In one scene a tired Louie begins to relax and get undressed, even takes off his shirt before shooting up that golden arm. Neither Molly nor Frankie’s wife Zosch ever show that much skin in front of Frankie!

Indeed, towards the end of “Sid and Nancy” the bond between the couple isn’t sex, isn’t love, so much as a shared insatiable lust for the drug, the third party in their fatal ménage a trois. For the pursuit of the fix is sexual in itself. And yet the most painful truth in “Sid and Nancy” is laid bare in that one scene in which Sid destroys everything around him, slaughters that old Sinatra standard in a big ironic “fuck you.” For in a world where outside forces like sex, drugs and rock and roll can determine an individual’s fate there is no such thing as “My Way.”

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