I'm thrilled to announce the publication of "My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them," edited by Michael Montlack. The book looks beautiful and I'm very proud to be a part of this wonderful celebration of women by some of the gay men who love them.
Here's my essay on Margaret Dumont, but please go here and buy the whole book, it's terrific!
Margaret Dumont: Duchess of Dignity
Margaret Dumont was called "the fifth Marx Brother" by Groucho, appearing in seven of their films. In each, she played the comic foil: a stately society matron who was a perfect target for the boys' insults and jibs. Unlike some of the other divas, she was not a subject of adulation, but rather has become someone for whom I have empathy. She played the role of an often-oblivious woman whose only purpose was to be made fun of. This is a lesser known kind of diva, but an important one. As much as gay men identify with the glamour of a screen siren or a disco diva, we also have always been drawn to tragic figures of ridicule. Monica Lewinsky is a recent inheritor of this mantle, a society woman who becomes a target for widespread sexualized derision. It takes the special perspective of the homosexual male to rescue her, to reverse the prevailing attitude, and to put her on a pedestal as a survivor, a person worthy of dignity.
Dumont was also the still center around which comic chaos revolved. Without her, the Marx Brothers' madness had no form, no structure. I imagine the never-seen internal experience of her character and a growing rage toward her tormentors. This parallels the gay man's anger a being a target of bullies and demagogues. Certainly, she was ridiculous: pompous, hefty, and self-important. Her flaws rationalize the enmity directed at her, but don't excuse it. The viciousness of humor operates in opposition to the human necessity for tolerance and understanding. In our fantasies, like our comedies, we take delight in behaviors that wouldn't be acceptable in our real lives. The sadism shown toward Dumont is the sublimation of those darker impulses toward misogyny and even rape in the deepest reaches of the male psyche. Dumont is punished by the Marx Brothers for no longer being sexually attractive and for representing the power found in social position and money. For this, she must undergo humiliation. If she isn't destroyed, she may become the castrator.
This weak stab at Freudian interpretation aside, my attempt to imagine Dumont's pain is analogous to any gay man's attempt to connect with the glamour and emotional freedom of a more conventional diva. In fact, my groping toward empathy for Dumont embodies that creative leap from observation to identification that is the hallmark of the gay man's love of his diva. That it can be applied not only to the victorious siren and femme fatale, but to the forlorn, forgotten, fat, and fatuous as well, is, to me, moving and transformative.
I never thought the Marx Brothers were all that funny. They were barbarians and bullies, stupid and self-aggrandizing. But something in me responded to their cruelty. When I was in the fourth grade, with my parents involved in a bitter separation, I took my confusion and hurt to the schoolyard. There by the tree next to the swing set, I became one of the Marx clan and mercilessly teased and taunted an outcast, a boy named Mark with a round face and funny square glasses who spoke in a stilted, strangled voice. I made him my bitch, calling him names and pushing him in the dirt. I relished making him cry, tears drawing a path down his face towards his mouth open in a round howl of surprise and pain.
My favorite teacher, Mrs. Brady, witnessed my torture of Mark, and I'll never forget her confusion and dismay as she asked me why, why had I targeted this poor boy with such ferocity? And then I felt flooded with shame, felt it rising in my own throat like bile. It was my first and maybe still my most intense experience of being ashamed, greater than any based on my latent sexuality. I had become my disapproving father, my rough brother. After that, I know somehow that I couldn't live my life managing my own pain and fear by transforming into an aggressor. It felt too terrible to have a person I admired like Mrs. Brady show me to myself as a bully.
Eventually, I tried to make amends to Mark, befriended him. At first he was wary and uncertain, but after a while I learned his solitary games, began to share his complex inner world of dreams and fantasies. For the rest of my life, I would carry with a special sympathy for the underdog, the misunderstood and the maligned. I make no claims to perfection in this; I'm still too aware of the seductive pleasure of sadism, the glee and sexual thrilled of kicking someone when he's down, but I know I am unable to sustain that mode of being in the world.
Gay men get a lot of labels and proclivities slapped on them. At worst we are vain, shallow, obsessed with image and externals, sex-crazed drug addicts. At best, we are image-makers, czars of style, and wielders of wickedly delightful wit. But in my personal experience, we are most often alternating between a trio of roles: the outcast feeling fat and excluded by the cool disdainful beauties, the tormentor who cackles "Get her!" and points toward the frump sitting on the barstool across the room, and the rescuer who recognizes the beauty and dignity of the maligned.
It's so hard not to keep seeing other gay men as a united front of unapproachable, shirtless clones. The challenge us to reach into that swirling mass of bodies and recognize a person who you can cultivate as an individual with his own secret history of pain and resilience. At best, gay men are ultimately kind because they understand derision firsthand and know at their core what it is like to be excluded. Margaret Dumont wore her ridicule on her face for all of us to see, with only bemusement and faked obliviousness as her protection.
There was a myth about Dumont, promulgated by Groucho, that she never even got all the jokes and insults targeted toward her. That was a fib. "I'm a straight lady, the best in Hollywood," she later said. "There's an art to playing the straight role. You must build up your man but never top him, never steal the laughs." Dumont played the dupe, but it was an act, a role that showed us the power of punny punctures that the Marx Brother's used to deflate pomposity. But for me she will always remain a duchess of dignity in the face of ridicule, only her eyes secretly communicating the diva's ultimate message, "I will survive."