Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rest well brave Lena

It's not accurate that actresses of elegant bearing are extinct. Each new decade produces a few such women. None of the moderns would compare well with Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly of course; some of the Golden era actresses just seem larger than life. Lena Horne was like that too.

No woman by instinct glides across a polished floor with the grace of a swan; someone has to teach them. Some pupils are better than others. That's Lena for you.

She was chosen by a Hollywood exec to be the crossover pioneer. Diamond in the rough, amazing physical beauty, dazzling smile, lots of raw talent. It was a business project, and success required an overhaul of Lena's public persona.

Don't laugh so loud, don't move your hips in that languid way when you walk. Chin tilted just so, no more dirty jokes. And a hundred other things. Process required to produce a non-threatening asexual negress acceptable in most white theaters.
It worked, and for the following seven decades Lena was almost entirely 'on.'

I wonder how she felt about her role as crossover pioneer. There must've been many of her race who congratulated her, but behind her back called her traitor. For some of her less chameleon-like contemporaries, Lena must've seen the opposite but twin of Stepin Fetchit. Well we all can't be Paul Robeson can we? And I'm not sure Robeson, outside his amazing talents, was very effective at anything except expressing his personal indignation.

Lena didn't learn how to move like a swan in order to change the world. She embarked on an early career of three minute bit parts that could be excised for Southern markets to make money and attain public recognition.

My favorite kind of oddball, among the many varities of kooks populating Earth, are those who don't set out to change the world, but do any way.

Lena was taught a persona and she wore it well. Some of it sunk in to her DNA to where it was Lena, but I don't think the persona ever replaced Lena. Her USO work was punctuated by angry expletive rage, after seeing German POW's given preference seating over black US soldiers. Wish I could talk to her about that, wonder what her exact feelings were. Was part of that rage against the fluke of genetics that made her look more 'white' than her blood kin? I'd like to ask Lena about that, but she was always too 'on' to deliver an uncrafted response. Can't get a straight answer from a swan.

And now Lena has passed, taking with her all those complex personas she seemed to balance so nonchalantly. I wonder if it was ever that nonchalant really. Jugglers make it look easy too. Rest well brave Lena. I'll always love you, whoever you were.

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