Monday, 13 February 2012

Movie Stars Who Won't Sleep With Me by Alice Saint: Daryl Hannah

From The Pictures #5

I always imagined I’d grow up to be a lounge singer or a B-movie femme fatale – louche, bitter – and I watched those scenes over and over till the VHS tapes wore out, till I had to wind the cassettes gently past the ruined parts each time. To suffer was the thing, I decided; preferably to suffer so much even before the action started that you’d be hardened, glittering damaged goods, ready to exploit and avenge from the opening shot to the last frame, or your death scene, whichever came first. Movies taught me before I was five that being a woman was dangerous, painful and complex. That’s how it was, and only the glamour and excitement of it could begin to compensate. I also knew that that kind of woman, my kind, always got punished in the end: assuming you survived the film at all, you certainly wouldn’t get the guy, and at the least you could expect to be run out of town. For me, the vamp was what made sense – it was the sweet, soft, open ingénue who seemed exotic, and in the 1980s of my childhood that meant one woman and one film above all: Daryl Hannah, in Splash.

As soon as I saw her I knew she was the fantasy girlfriend. She appears, naked, silent, long golden hair barely covering her breasts, a gorgeous fish out of water in New York City. And she’s perfect: she knows all about sex – insatiable but monogamous – and yet the big man gets to look after her, to explain about traffic or revolving doors. Isn’t that a little too good to be true? Perhaps we’re all born with some instinct for sex, and not so much for machinery, but then most of us are not born with a tail. When at last she talks (since it’s ’80s Manhattan, her first word is ‘Bloomingdales’), there’s a rasp in her voice: it’s never been used for speech. She seems untainted – no former lovers, no history of any kind. Even as a gauche, anxious prepubescent, I got the point: what makes Daryl/Madison the ideal woman is that she isn’t one. We, watching, know she’s a mermaid; her man can help her choose a name to replace the untranslatable dolphin-screech, and he can teach her whatever he likes. She is brand new. Any signs of strangeness that escape her have a focus and a justification: the lady is not from around here.

Splash has some affinities with the genre in which a devoted but untameable pet – Beethoven, let’s say – causes chaos and must be rescued from villains who want it locked up or destroyed. ‘Why don’t you keep her on a leash?’ someone yells, as Madison bounds across the street after some treat or other. And people keep trying to get her wet, so that her legs will fuse back into a tail and leave her thrashing on the ground. The dreamgirl isn’t so different from the sad vamp, it’s just that she protects herself differently. Naked, Edenic Madison doesn’t look as if she’d frame you for anything, she appears to have nothing to hide (a winning trick – they had wholesome Daryl wandering undressed at the start of Roxanne, too).

The bathroom scene in Splash marked my adolescence; it frequently replays itself while I sleep. At night, the beached mermaid creeps out of bed, pours salt in the tub, shuts herself in, spreads her tail out, serene, alone. It’s the next sequence that lodges in my psyche: the man at the door asking what’s wrong, wanting to come in, the escalation in seconds from concern (‘Are you all right?’) to anger (‘Enough is enough’), and her fear of exposure or violation, her look of utter, animal panic. The struggle between them felt so real to me, even as you watched her heave her Disneyfied joke-body out onto the bath-mat, her absurd, frantic efforts to dry the tail with a towel, then a hairdryer, as the hammering on the door grew more insistent.

The exhausting charade of femininity is being forced open – turns out the conventional beauty is a scaly monster who must transform or conceal or reveal herself unceasingly, only just getting away with it each time. Not even those closest to her know what she is, but they sense it, they want to catch her in the act of freakishness somehow, and this applies especially to the man who supposedly loves her: he wants to know and see everything, to be the only one privileged to see it, he wants to catch her out, to hold her captive, and what a fine line there is between ‘Darling, you can trust me, tell me your secrets – I will take care of you’ and ‘Open this door, you bitch, before I break it down’.

Indeed, he does it – even as she delays, distracts, pleads, sobs ‘No!’ – he smashes in the door, and there she is, tail dried away just in time. Now she must bridle on the floor like a little girl and explain herself: ‘I was shy’. ‘After the car and the elevator and the bedroom,’ he asks, ‘and the top of the refrigerator, you were shy?’ It’s as if, having fucked him, she has forfeited any right to privacy, to her own body. She’s his now, wide open, and if she says nothing’s wrong she must prove it (‘Everything’s fine’; ‘Well then let me in’). It’s striking that the bully behind the door is not one of those ‘scientists’ eager to cut her open and see what’s inside – he’s her boyfriend, played by Mr Plodding Decency, Tom Hanks, no less.

Even later, when he knows the truth, he asks ‘Is your secret that you’re a mermaid, or is there something else?’ ‘That’s it,’ says the fantasy girl. No more secrets, no interior self, nothing he can’t access. No wonder this movie made Daryl a star. She was never really a cheerleader blonde – the signs were there in Blade Runner, and it wasn’t just make-up. Her features weren’t meant for softness, despite that halo of hair and lighting they used to surround her. The hard bones of jaw and cheek and brow have emerged more strongly with time: Tarantino could see she was a warrior, and she is one still, getting arrested again last month outside the White House. I wanted her, long ago, the way I imagined a man would, but my warring impulses confused me, and I still feel that heartsick mix of lust, aggression, empathy and envy. Passion, because she’s an irreducible mystery, hiding in plain sight; empathy, because the dark, alien part of her so often has to stay submerged; and envy most of all, because she doesn’t have to make do with a flimsy locked door and a tub-full of saltwater – she can run to the pier, dive back into her element, and vanish.

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