Friday, June 5, 2015

Blyth Spirit: The Jacqueline T. Lynch Q-and-A

In the long history of Hollywood child stars, there are few who grew up and sustained their early success into a long and fruitful career: Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, and Kurt Russell immediately come to mind as examples. Another among that number is Ann Blyth, who at age sixteen, went toe to toe with the formidable Joan Crawford in the original Mildred Pierce and earned herself an Oscar nomination. She went on to make a string of stirring dramas and light comedies, with only occasional but memorable opportunities to show off her remarkable singing voice. Today, she is one of the few Old Hollywood stars still with us, and continues to get feted for her accomplishments, as she did at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival, for instance.

Now, her career on stage, screen and television is captured in a forthcoming book, Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. by Jacqueline T. Lynch, whom I have talked about here on many occasions, and am proud and delighted to have gotten to know through her film blog, Another Old Movie Blog (AOMB). Jacqueline spent 2014 blogging in depth about Blyth, and her biography of the actress, due out June 18, will further expand on the work begun there. Jacqueline was kind enough to talk to me at length about Blyth and the book.

Rich Watson: When was the first time you saw Ann Blyth?

Jacqueline T. Lynch: I don't remember. I first saw, as a child, Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, but I couldn't tell you how old I was or what year. At some point in my teens I saw Mildred Pierce and a couple of the musicals.... Oh, by the way, those Hostess cupcake commercials were on TV as well when I was a child, and I knew her from those, but I didn't equate the cupcake lady with the mermaid. The mermaid had long blonde hair. The cupcake lady had short dark hair. The mermaid didn't speak. The cupcake lady talked a lot about cupcakes and Twinkies....

I knew she was a Hollywood star, but a lot of movie stars were doing commercials then -- Donald O'Connor, Jane Wyatt, Ricardo Montalban, to name a few. I just didn't realize she was the mermaid. I was a dumb kid. 

Jacqueline T. Lynch
RW: At what point then, approximately, did she become more than another actress for you?

JTL: She became more than another actress for me in the summer of 2013. Since my Twinkie-eating childhood days, I had seen her in other movies, and as I grew older, Mildred Pierce grew in my estimation as a fascinating piece of noir cinematography, and her work as Veda was powerful. I respected her work in that movie, but it was not until I started finding her other films, and seeing what an enormous range she had as a performer that I really began to appreciate her as one of the greats of her generation. 

Other factors intrigued me: how she was perceived in Hollywood and by the press, and how she managed her career and her private life. Investigating her career became like a study of that period of popular history in microcosm -- the 1920s through the 21st century through the career of one person.

RW: Regarding that last point: you had said something similar at AOMB regarding not just Blyth, but acting in general. How, in your opinion, has acting from Blyth's day evolved into what we're familiar with now?

JTL: The former "presentational" style has obviously given way to more naturalistic style, which is often very moving and impressive, [and] has given us some fantastic performances over the decades, but yet the films are not always for the better, in my opinion. I think there is ultimately a falseness to the modern style of filmmaking—not necessarily acting--in many instances, where filmmakers seemingly have duped a modern audience into experiencing a movie as if it was actually real life. As if grittiness and "realism" are substitutes for storytelling. They’re not. It’s a movie. It’s just a story, a show. There’s nothing real about it. At least the classic films, which many younger viewers and filmmakers apparently view as fake looking or contrived, were honest about that. They valued showmanship.

I suppose it’s a chicken-and-egg situation: did the modern movies change what the audience expects in film, or did the modern audience change what filmmakers produce? They feed off each other.

But they did in the old days, too. Younger people rolling their eyes at a "corny" old movie need to remember that. The old studio-produced films, even in their hokey way, fed off their audience and gave them what they felt the audience would accept.

However, I would seriously compare Ann Blyth’s acting versatility with Meryl Streep’s. The interesting difference here is that Meryl Streep, an independent artist, is free to make her very versatility her trademark, the facet by which she is marketed, whereas back in the day under the more restrictive studio system, the studio heads seemed not to know how to market Ann Blyth’s versatility, and I feel they failed to exploit it to its full potential.

Blyth with Joan Crawford in "Mildred Pierce"
RW: It's fortunate that she had had the press on her side. From the selections of the media articles you reproduced, they seemed to really love her.

JTL: They did, but there, too, we see an interesting shift. When she did Mildred Pierce, and the dramatic movies that followed, like Swell Guy and Another Part of the Forest, the press was calling her a young Bette Davis, lauding her as a great dramatic actress. But then a funny thing happened. When they delved into her private life, they discovered she was a quiet, reserved, very religious person. Then the press starting playing that aspect up more and more, until their summation of her "goodness" seemed almost dismissive, as if they were writing her off as an innocent. The studios, with their ear to the ground when it came to playing the press, fell into that mindset and by the time she was in her late twenties, just when she should have hit her stride in mature and challenging roles, she was viewed as someone who wasn’t right for the heavy dramatic stuff.

For example, she was praised for her work as Veda Pierce at the age [of] sixteen when nobody knew anything about her. A decade later, she was mocked for wanting to play the alcoholic Helen Morgan (despite the fact of Morgan’s being demure, soft-spoken, charitable, and a Catholic convert). Both roles she had to audition for—and won on the strength of her powerful auditions that blew everybody away.

Even when she won the Helen Morgan role, she wasn’t allowed to sing in the movie because, by that time, she had done a few lightweight operetta-type musicals and the press smirked at the thought of her being a torch singer with that kind of trained voice. The studio caved. Yet, I heard her sing one of Helen Morgan’s signature tunes, "Can’t Help Lovin' Dat Man," when she appeared as a guest on The Dinah Shore Show. She sang it blues-y, with great emotion and nothing operetta-like about it. She was a jazz singer. She could have sung that part herself and not need to be dubbed.

So, the press sometimes, if not attacking, was at the very least, obtuse and short-sighted. It often baffled Ann. She once remarked, "A good part is just that: a good part. It has nothing to do with who you really are or how you live your life." Too bad the entertainment press was so taken in by its own hyperbole.

Blyth with Howard Keel in "Kismet,"
one of her rare (undubbed) singing roles
RW: Let's get back to Mildred for a minute. You put forth the theory that Jo Ann Marlowe's character Kay was basically Veda's saving grace, "the reassuring constant in her life," and when she dies, it draws Veda closer to Mildred, if only temporarily. This seems to put a more humanizing spin on Veda, or am I misinterpreting? She's always been easy (and fun) to vilify.

JTL: No, I don't think Kay's death draws her closer to Mildred. She has a moment of putting her head in her mother's lap, but that's just a physical action the director gives us to show us how lost and devastated she is. (The old writer's mantra: show, don't tell.) There's no real emotional connection with her mother. It's easy to vilify Veda because she IS evil. No contest. What she might have been if Kay had been around to temper her moods, that makes for interesting speculation.

RW: While we're on the subject, what did you think of the Kate Winslet version?

JTL: I don't think I saw the whole thing, but I did see parts of it. It was much closer to the book.  My preference is for the 1945 movie, which I've seen many times and will likely enjoy many times more. I just like the old Hollywood noir feel to it, what they did with the story, and, of course, the performances. The Winslet version wasn't bad; it's just apples and oranges. I wonder what the author, James M. Cain, would have thought of it; if he would have preferred it to the 1945 version?

RW: Well, that sounds like the perfect cue to talk about your book. You've said that in addition to the expanded material, you have some new interviews. Who else did you talk to?

JTL: A few people who worked with her in theatre and concerts, the most well-known of whom would likely be Bill Hayes, who has a long career on Broadway [and] TV (including the classic Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, and over a decade on the daytime drama Days of Our Lives). 

I’m also grateful for the input of a couple [of] classic film bloggers: Laura Grieve of Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, and Janet Sullivan Cross of Sister Celluloid. I see this project as [a] product of the classic film blogging community, and so it was especially gratifying to have their input on meeting Ann Blyth at the 2013 TCM Film Festival. Also, two gentlemen who took the 2014 TCM Classic Cruise and met Ann gave their perspectives, one a long-time fan of many decades, and one a newer fan, on their appreciation of her. I think the varied interviews give a nice cross-section on the study of not just her career, but her "stardom."

Blyth in "The Helen Morgan Story"
RW: I know you and I have talked about this before, but for the record, could you go into the process of self-publishing a book from a marketing viewpoint? As fans of your blog know, you have a long track record of publishing your own books, but they may not know precisely what that entails.

JTL: Essentially, it entails everything. Once the book is complete – having been edited, and then acquiring a cover illustration (for these two steps, most indie writers hire outside editors and artists) – there is the decision of where to publish and how to market. Books come in three forms these days: print, eBook, and audio. I haven’t gotten into audio books yet because of the expense, but I’ll get there down the road. For print and eBook one needs to format the manuscript in different ways. Many indies do this themselves (I do), but many, again, will hire out for someone to format the books for them. 

For publishing an eBook, there is always Amazon, of course, the largest online seller, but there are also a variety of other online sellers and distributors. As for the print book, Amazon will also sell print books, but most bookstores will not carry indie books, particularly novels. That’s slowly changing, but for the most part, an indie author will sell print books through Amazon, a few other channels, or through personal websites. I sell my print books through Amazon, through the printer, CreateSpace, and from my website. Also, anyone can contact me through my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmailcom, and I can sell to them directly if they want to pay by check or money order, or by PayPal (which also accepts credit cards). I’ve also just opened an Etsy shop called LynchTwinsPublishing, and one can order books there by credit card.

Marketing is a funny thing. We have so many new tools to market books these days: email newsletters, ads on websites, Facebook, Twitter, blogs—and yet, as the saying goes, the best advertising is still word of mouth. If someone likes your book and tells others about it, that’s worth more than all the paid advertising in the world. The best thing a writer can do for himself is to keep that in mind, and to target one’s audience carefully. There is a growing classic film fan community where I hope my book on Ann Blyth will be welcome. But if I bought ads on a science fiction/dystopian universe/self-help on how to lose weight and unclog your kitchen sink newsletter (there probably is one out there) – I might be out of luck in drumming up interest.

Ann Blyth in 2013
RW: Was taking this book to a big publisher an option for you?

JTL: A BIG publisher, no. Big publishers work through agents, and I don’t have one. There are only five big publishers left in the country. They’ve already got a lot of manuscripts to choose from. There’s no room at the table for me. Also, one may conjecture about the likelihood of their pursuing a book on a film star without scandal in it. 

A SMALL publisher, yes. In fact, one editor, in casual conversation – I did not bring the project to him, we were discussing something else – said his house might be very interested. 

As tempting as it was to submit to that publisher, I preferred to go it solo because I feel I am capable of turning out a professional product, and because I wanted to write it my way. A small publisher might be able to offer me credibility, even get me in some bookstores, but I’d still have to foot the expense of photos, and do my own publicity, and earn a much lower percentage. With all due respect to commercial publishers, large and small, (which I may deal with someday if they were interested in my work, I’m not saying I never would), I felt this was a home-grown organic project, me and the classic film blogging community, and I wanted it to stay that way.

It would take two or three years to be published by a BIG or SMALL publisher if the book was accepted, and they would design the cover, and make other decisions without my approval. When one gets involved in indie publishing for a while, the commercial publishers begin to lose their attraction, for many reasons. I don’t mean to bad-mouth them; they’re running a business. 

Another thing to consider is a commercial publisher likely would not want the book because much of it, in an earlier draft, was published week by week on Another Old Movie Blog (though the book contains probably 30 to 40 percent new material). Publishers want "original" material, not something that’s already been published, and when one posts writing on a blog, it is, in effect, being published because it is available for the public to read.

But my foremost reason for not going with a commercial publisher is that the publisher would just let the book go out of print in a few years. After that, maybe a stray copy or two might be found in a bargain bin or a single used copy sold for $150 on eBay by one scavenger collector to another. The whole point of writing the book is to examine and celebrate Ann Blyth’s tremendous talents for her longtime fans, and introduce younger audiences to her career – since her films are so very hard to obtain. It would defeat the purpose if the book were also hard to obtain in a few years. By independently publishing, I can keep this book published, always, and made easily—and inexpensively—available to the public, and continue to spread the word on this fine actress for decades to come.

My review of Jacqueline's novel Meet Me in Nuthatch

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