Wednesday, December 28, 2011

An Echo Continued

Do you know how an echo sounds once it begins?  It is loud, clear, resounding, forceful and understandable.  With each return though it grows softer, dimmer and more distorted.  Often I think that has what has happened with Agnes.  The further away from her we get the more we are forced to figure out what the echo is saying.  Sometimes I think it reaches a point when it becomes less necessary to know what the echo originally said and more important to define a meaning for it it.  For each person that hears it the echo will mean something different.  More for some less for others.   The most marvelous thing is that Agnes is an echo continued.  Every page you ready every word written, every thought given, every discussion had is a continuation of this larger than life creature.

Agnes was a perfectionist.  Someone who was completely dedicated to the idea that with practice and observation life became a useful tool in and of itself.   She used to say to acting students, ""It's interesting, life, colors, brilliance.  Do something brilliant, think!"  If you want to do something, you take the reality and you color it."  "Watch life, watch theatre, be skeptical, analyze successes, failures, analyze it all."  Take reality and you color it.  It  is an interesting premise that falls in line with her failure to fully live in this world and her desire to make reality conform to what she thought it should be.  Whether it was her school, her family, her career, she had certain tints she applied to them to make them bearable.  She rarely moved beyond the fantasy that she surrounded herself with as protection.  She remained in the woods and was whatever she wanted to be whenever she wanted to be it.

I think if we had an IQ test with Agnes' name on it you'd find that she had a ridiculously high IQ.  She was incredibly intelligent.  Anytime you listen to her speak you can hear that intelligence flowing through that deep velvet voice.  She could communicate anything with that voice and she could make you see it in your minds eye just as clearly as if you had been standing right there.  She can still do that.  How grateful we should all be that she made so many recordings.  Just recently I listened to the original "Don Juan In Hell" again and found myself swept away by her portrayal of Dona Ana.   If you watch her talk on any given talk show about her youth you can see like a mist of a ghost the younger version of Agnes in all her glory.

She was also what I call a "wordsmith."  That is someone who is so eloquent and so talented that words become tools in themselves.  Not just their meanings but their use and the way they are used.  Agnes, it has been said, "used words like hammers."  She emphasized them, repeated them and pounded them into the minds of those who listened to her.  Quint Benedetti says, "She hit them like a batter with the bases loaded.  She did the same thing with sentences.  She would question fiercely, and then quietly, then intensively answer her own questions.  She would make an important statement augustly and then repeat it softly, reflectively, more strongly than the first time.  Or intensely, searching, as if inexorably prying out its true meaning.  But her repetition was always an echo that we would continue inside ourselves"  Her echo would continue inside ourselves and so it does in so many ways.  I doubt that the depth of her mark on this world was ever really completely clear to her.

I don't refer just to her time in Hollywood.  Her imprint goes far beyond Hollywood itself.  It goes into every home on this planet that has a television and show old television shows or movies.  Generation after generation has been exposed to her performances, her philosophies, her truths, her prevarications.  The impact is so deep that she or rather "Endora" is considered to be a cultural icon.  Instantly recognizable in nearly every nation on our planet.  To the generation now passing away and moving on she was a radio cultural icon.  Fortunately the love of the old radio shows and the desire to keep our history alive has allowed an entirely new generation to discover this complex, talented, woman and oh how wonderful she would find it.  Although I often wonder what diatribe she would launch into over the moral state of world today.  As bad as the sixties were the 2000's would truly blow her mind.

Agnes was completely dedicated to her art and a stickler for detail.  Benedetti said, " She'd look into the forest and see the insects, the grass, the burned out useless twigs.  She saw all the details of the forest not just the trees and the branches and the leaves.  She had a keen eye for observation. She saw what a lot of us didn't see.  She went places that many people would not be willing, mentally, to go.  Think about the movie "Fourteen Hours"  it's a movie about suicide and I'm sure we would all agree that if you had experienced the suicide of a sibling the last thing you would want is to do a movie about a parent trying to save the life of their child and no matter how annoying or clingy her character is that is exactly what the character was trying to do.  If you get a chance to watch it take the time to watch Agnes' eyes.  She calls up that pain and puts it right there for everyone to see.  Her attention to detail was infallible.  She used to say,  "Therapy? What do you need with therapy?  Oh, my dear," she scolded high handedly.  Then she proceeded to give me a ten minute lecture.  "I'm a great believer in making your weaknesses your strengths.  I have practiced to good advantage, turning my problems over to prayer.  You don't need therapy.  It will ruin your eccentricity and creativity.  All you'll need is God and the Bible."  "And you just have to know what you are about."  It's a simple clean cut view.  I am what I am.  I have lived what I've lived.  I have been taught what I've been taught and that must be right.  It may be a naive simplistic way to view things but then in many ways Agnes never really grew up.
When her mother, who was a dominant force in her life was around, Agnes always acted like a little girl with her.  It has been said that on more than one occasion when they traveled together a disagreement would be stir up and her mother would just say, "Hush, Agnes!"  Agnes did exactly as she was told.  Quint Benedetti says that only person he ever saw upstage Agnes was her mother.

Not much has been written on Mollie Moorehead that isn't as contradictory as anything written about her daughter.  Her fundamentalist beliefs caused more than their share of strain on both the Moorehead Girls but Agnes was tough as nails.  She forged that distance from her mother into a shield that would keep the world at bay and it taught her how to protect herself.  It has been said alternately that Mollie was the sweetest woman in the world and that she was cold as ice.  My own opinion is that she was a product of her time.  My own grandmother Alice was so very much the same way and my great grandmother even more so.  I have exactly 4 pictures in which my grandmother is smiling and none in which my great grandmother Mae, who was incidentally the same age as Mollie, is smiling.  Great grandmother was a fundamentalist too as was my grandmother.  My grandfather, like Agnes' father, was an easy going Lutheran man with strong opinions of wrong and right but gentle ways of teaching them.  So in Mollie's case the apple didn'[ fall far from the tree.  She reared her children, right or wrong, the way she was reared and her husband left her to her woman's work when they weren't engaged in church business.  Agnes and her sister spent a lot of time away from home.  I think that had a lot to do with the inner friction between Agnes and her mother.  It borders on resentment for Aggie.  She was left to rear herself and her sister.  She watched her sister be destroyed and yet Agnes never outwardly acted out towards her mother.  She treated Mollie as a "good girl" should and demonstrated respect for her but under that there was tension so thick it was palpable.  Benedetti calls it envy.  I call it damage....a case could be made for both.

As Benedetti says, "Agnes never ceased to be a star, an important, intelligent lady, a strange, eccentric lady but a big star. She was irresistible to me.  A promise in herself, whose colors and brilliance made some of the students follow her blindly.  Part of the power of Agnes' spell lay in the promises she'd cast.  Typically feminine, but more so with Agnes."

She was very moody and everything depended on her moods or better yet whims.  She could be in many was undisciplined and jump from one thing to another without really completing something before moving on.  At least that is how her personal life seemed to be lived.  Yet with all that she ran her home like clockwork.  She was an enigma, a walking contradiction. 
Her intensity was an inner fire that flowed out to us through her incredible animation.

She said, " A child is born with a degree of primitive savagery and somebody must discipline it out of him.  A child likes discipline.  He likes to know somebody cares.  Discipline gives standards and values to live by, a  basis for morality.  Most young people don't realize that."

Agnes Moorehead was a complicated woman.  She had complete confidence in herself in front of an audience, in front of a camera, in front of a microphone but take that away and she was lost like a child.  She could perform Agnes Moorehead but it was just that, a performance. As an actress women were drawn to her in particular because she oozed a sense of strength.   Something they felt was solid and comfortable.  Something they felt they might be able to lean on for support in time of need.  We've all heard the rumors but seriously what does that matter.  Any human being with a soul would fall in love with her.  She had a soul like a beacon in the dark and she attracted to her those who craved that erudite kind of light.  Her personal intensity was like flame, like internal combustion that she translated into action.

"I love beautiful people," Agnes would say. "I love clean people.;"  She was opinionated, poignant, domineering and possibly one of the most delightful people of the twentieth century!  Her intensity was an inner fire that flowed out to us through her incredible animation.

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