We’ve welcomed the undead into our living rooms since the days of “Dark Shadows.” But in the decades since, most of those stories have been about life and death battles between the living and the dead, with a dose of forbidden romance tossed in.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Walking Dead” focused on averting the apocalypse. Other shows, like “Ghost Whisperer,” zeroed in on the spooky. But in today’s TV landscape, death is something we’re far more comfortable with, and the no longer living aren’t treated as monsters or even as metaphors. Instead, they’re used as tools to investigate a wide array of topics as varied as feminism, political disenfranchisement, and trauma. And in the case of “The Good Place,” all of the above and more.
The last six months alone have seen the premieres of CBS’ “Ghosts,” Starz’s “Shining Vale,” and Season 2 of Prime Video’s “Upload,” all of which revolve around the undead and all of which take radically different approaches to how we interact with death.
Almost 100 years before Kim Kardashian was advocating for prison reform, Nancy Cunard was wielding both her fortune and her notoriety for social justice.
A combustible combination of Art Deco chic and aristocratic activist, Cunard made shock waves throughout London society, publicly feuding with her mother—renowned London society hostess Emerald Cunard—and thumbing her nose at almost every conceivable convention of an era not necessarily known for its staidness, even while shielded somewhat by her mother’s reputation and the Cunard shipping line fortune.
“She was dedicated to obliterating the social class to which they all belonged. And I think she meant that,” historian and biographer Laura Thompson says. Cunard is one of a slew of wealthy women prominently featured in Thompson’s delicious new book Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies, alongside Vanderbilts and Huttons and others, stretching back to the 17th century. Cunard’s was a generation dedicated to decadence and refuting their parents’ values—but Cunard often took it to extremes.
“Sometimes I think I have the character of a very clever woman—able, but trivial with flair, intuition, great good taste and second-rate ambition,” Henry “Chips” Channon wrote in a diary entry dated July 19, 1935. “I am susceptible to flattery, and male good looks; I hate and am uninterested in all the things men like such as sport, business, statistics, debates, speeches, war and the weather; but I am riveted by lust, bibelots, furniture and glamour, society and jewels.”
Those qualities may have made Channon an unremarkable Member of Parliament, but they earmarked him as a particularly insouciant cicerone through the interwar years of London high society. American-born, the bisexual and snobbish Channon married into the Guinness brewing family in 1933 and then pursued politics and social climbing, with a firm emphasis on the latter. His political career stalled after his vociferous and prolonged endorsement of appeasement in the late 1930s, but his social life was a resounding success. With a knack for being on the scene of historical moments and a particularly waspish wit, his diaries have been required reading for aesthetes and Anglophiles since they were posthumously published in heavily expurgated form in 1967. Only now are they being published in their full form; edited by Simon Heffer, the two volumes covering 1918–1943 are out now, with a final volume hitting American bookstores September 8.
There is a tendency to pin a celebrity down in the apex of their fame. For the general public, Grace Kelly remains eternally veiled in her Helen Rose wedding gown on April 19, 1956, poised to become a princess the moment she exchanges vows with Prince Rainier III of Monaco. As with all fairy tales, most are content to leave the story there, with the beautiful 26-year-old Oscar winner walking away from Hollywood to live happily ever after as a real-life princess. Only the tragic circumstances around her death—she suffered a stroke while driving at age 52, and died from her injuries—prevent the rosier version of Princess Grace’s life from remaining extant.
But 26 years is a fairly large gap, and though Princess Grace’s day-to-day is not as well-known as her film career, her style, her wedding, or her untimely death, she did more than simply preside over royal functions and smile at visiting dignitaries. Among other pursuits, Kelly narrated several documentaries, toured America with an evening of poetry reading to benefit the World Wildlife Fund, and served on the board of directors of the 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. She never again starred in another feature film—though she was offered roles in everything from Marnie to The Turning Point—but she also never abandoned the pursuit of new creative outlets. And as her comfort in Monaco grew, so too did her long dormant passion for flowers.
Lee Radziwill’s acting career started off with the best of intentions.
In 1967, Truman Capote became fixated on making his friend into a star. That his friend was Princess Lee Radziwill, a fixture of the high society to which Capote remained slavish, was naturally a major component. Capote’s own waspish take on Radziwill’s rivalry with her sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—“My God, how jealous she is of Jackie: I never knew,” he wrote to Cecil Beaton immediately after meeting Radziwill—was another. Capote saw this as a chance to help Radziwill upstage her sister by embarking on something glamorous and exciting. And it was a chance for him to ignore the looming deadline for his follow-up to In Cold Blood.
When Capote first summoned producer David Susskind to his home to pitch the idea of Radziwill in a high-end, glossy, TV movie, Susskind, not unfairly, asked if anyone cared enough about Radziwill to watch. “Truman just shrieked,” Susskind later told the New York Times, “And said, ‘Are you kidding?’”
Capote was right: Radziwill’s television debut was seen by 38 million people when it finally aired January 24, 1968. But while the audience tuned in, the critics were savage. Radziwill never acted again.
Lucille Ball wasn’t a natural comic genius. Her true brilliance lay in recognizing that fact, and surrounding herself with people who made her look like one.
“I’m not funny. What I am is brave,” she once said. In truth, Ball was funny—watch one of the comedies from her hit-or-miss film career and you’ll get a sense of her own dry sense of humor. But as Aaron Sorkin’s new film Being the Ricardos (streaming now on Amazon Prime) makes clear, Lucille Ball was not the Lucy Ricardo of I Love Lucy, a zany housewife getting into scrapes with best pal Ethel Mertz. At the initial table read for each episode of the CBS series, Ball couldn’t get a laugh. And over and over in the film, Nicole Kidman’s Ball says, “I’ll get it by Friday.”
Our age of reboots, revivals, and revisitations is beginning to take its toll. With every new announcement comes the ceremonial rolling of the eyes from critics — unless they happen to be a fan of the IP, in which case the news is greeted with frenzied excitement — and grumblings from fans. Not that either has stopped the slow march toward net zero on creativity.
But while many reboots are content to do nothing more than update the technology for a beloved property (looking at you, “MacGuyver”) and cash in on its name recognition, some are interested in exploring and questioning what made the original iteration so resonant while addressing its earlier failings. The prime example is Pop TV’s dearly beloved “One Day at a Time,” which took the original’s premise (single mom and kids struggling with divorce) and applied it to a Latinx family. Suddenly, an entirely new world of stories opened up, from gender fluidity to PTSD.
That’s the tack that HBO Max’s “And Just Like That” is taking, as well. Using the absence of Kim Cattrall’s Samantha to add more BIPOC characters, the new take on “Sex and the City” is actively interrogating its own initial shortcomings in presenting a lily-white depiction of New York City for six seasons.
That a prestige, legacy series on HBO, shepherded by producers who have long served as gatekeepers of the brand, should do this is not surprising. What is more surprising is when the seemingly most disposable series rebrands turn out to be the ones with the most articulate narratives about life today.
Perhaps no one really thought we needed a new iteration of “Saved by the Bell” or “Gossip Girl” other than showrunners Tracey Wigfield and Joshua Safran. And a TV adaptation of “Child’s Play” from the film’s creator Don Mancini seemed, at first glance, like another opportunity to cash in on a franchise that had run out of cinematic steam. But all three series quickly turned into compelling, literate television with a lot more on their minds than high-gloss, no-calorie entertainment.
An essential component of Cary Grant’s eternal star persona is his impoverished beginnings. In Grant’s rags-to-tuxedo origin story, the Cockney acrobat Archie Leach willed himself into an underwhelming Broadway performer and then into the epitome of silver screen elegance. That’s the man we think of starring in films ranging from screwball classics like The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby to Alfred Hitchcock thrillers Notorious and North by Northwest.
“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant,” he famously said. But the less-quoted second half of that statement is worth considering: “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point.” By the time he was at the height of his fame in the 1950s, those long years of pretending to be someone else had taken from him possibly more than they had given.
So Grant, the man who always looked as if he’d been born with a silver cocktail spoon in his mouth, turned to a new therapy: lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD. Now, that period of his life is brought to life in the new Broadway musical Flying Over Sunset.
“I don’t have to live in New York,” Greta Garbo once said. “I could live in hell.”
For a woman who had become synonymous with solitude, she might as well have. Garbo helped define what we think of as the Golden Age of Hollywood, first as a silent film star and then, triumphantly, as a major MGM star in the 1930s. Yet even at the height of her fame, her fanatical desire for privacy was as famous as she was herself. All of which conspired to make her 50 years of retirement spent walking the streets of New York City into a cat-and-mouse game with tourists and photographers alike. So ubiquitous a presence was she that even when they didn’t intend to, photographers couldn’t help snapping Garbo pics. One of Bill Cunningham‘s first photos in the New York Times was of Garbo in a nutria coat; when he took it, he was so focused on the coat that he hadn’t recognized the woman wearing it.
By the time she was firmly ensconced in Manhattan in the mid 1950s, Garbo was wealthy enough to live anywhere. Yet despite family in Sweden and two decades in Los Angeles, she settled in New York City, becoming as famous a New Yorker as she was a movie star. Garbo sightings were reported breathlessly; even famous fans were awkward and frighteningly intent when they spotted her. (One day, a limousine screeched to a halt on Central Park West, and a wild-eyed young woman leaped out. Garbo escaped, while her companion held the woman back. The fan turned out to be international film star Liv Ullmann, then set to star in a Broadway revival of Anna Christie.) Choosing a life that involved so many people so close at hand seems incomprehensible for a woman like Garbo. But then, much of Garbo’s post-Hollywood life makes as much sense as her abrupt retirement at age 35.
“There’s no curiosity about decadence any more. The thrill of sin is not the fashion. Of course a few take cocaine, and lots of people don’t get married. None of those things is decadent. They are choices.” Diana Vreeland: NewYork Times, August 28, 1977
Decadence is a singularly non-American concept. And yet, as a rebuke to the Puritanism upon which the country was founded and which remains rampant among the amber waves of grain, what could be more American?
Culturally speaking, the concept of excess is having a tough time. Put aside the pandemic restrictions: In our current health-and-wellness, influencer-led society, an entire generation considers gluten to be the ultimate indulgence.