BOOKS & THE CULTURE Baton Rouge Mon Amour BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN BLAZE Directed by Ron Shelton FAMILY BUSINESS Directed by Sidney Lumet AJ. LIEBLING’S 1960 The Earl of Louisiana, a masterful 4110 meditation on power and personality, mentions Blaze Starr only once, as one of thousands who filed past former Governor Earl K. Long’s coffin as he lay in state in Baton Rouge. Ron Shelton’s Blaze, which is based on Blaze Starr: My Life As Told to Hugh Perry, showcases the voluptuous showgirl in almost every scene but neglects to cast anyone in the role of Miz Blanche, the woman who remained Long’s wife throughout his affair with a 28year-old stripper. In 1960, before Gary Hart and even Wilbur Mills, journalists and Liebling, a staff writer for The New Yorker, was one of the best did not comment on the conjugal indiscretions of prominent people. Thirty years later, matrimony is the hidden indiscretion. Bashful less than boshful, Long proclaimed: “The three best friends the poor people have ever had are Jesus Christ, Sears & Roebuck and Earl K. Long.” The younger brother of assassinated populist Huey Long and the uncle of Senator Russell Long, he did yeoman’s duty, as champion of the small farmer and the worker. In the years immediately before black militancy, he attempted to extend civil rights without at the same time alienating lower-class whites. In a tumultuous session of the Louisiana Legislature, Long burst onto the floor to oppose a bill designed to disenfranchise thousands of the state’s AfricanAmerican voters. In rhetoric that would have pleased neither Rap Brown nor David Duke, he declared: “You got to recognize that niggers is human beings!” Earl Long was a quirky, ornery, compassionate, outrageous human being, and in him Paul Newman has a role that is more flamboyant than that of the stolid General Steven G. Kellman is professor of comparative literature at The University of Texas at San Antonio. Leslie Groves, commander of the Manhattan Project in Fat Man and Little Boy. The real Uncle Earl had at least 50 pounds on Newman’s wispy, white-haired rendition, but both are figures of prodigious energy. Long wears his boots in bed, in order to provide better traction during copulation. He delights in the pleasures of food, sex and invective. During a stormy battle over voting rights, he is drugged by his opponents and whisked away to a mental hospital. But Long is still governor, and he calls his office from the sanatorium to order the dismissal of the medical authorities who are keeping him prisoner. He successfully counters another hospital’s refusal to hire black personnel by convincing its director that it is a disgrace for white folks to be working in the colored ward. “In a certain way, we’re both kind of in show business,” says Blaze to Earl, and writer-director Ron Shelton’s movie portrays politics and ecdysiasis as natural bedfellows. Blaze Starr, Fannie Belle Fleming, leaves her childhood cabin in Twelvepole Creek, West Virginia, to make her mark in the big city. “Never trust a man who says trust me,” is her mother’s parting advice. In New Orleans in 1959, Blaze, now an exotic dancer, meets the 65year-old governor, who warns her not to trust him. She does, and Blaze is the MayDecember love story of two impulsive people whose impulses are usually benign. Barely a year later, Long dies in her lap, murmuring “Trust me.” Despite its title and the fascination of discovering a promising new face and torso in Canadian actress Lolita Davidovich, Blaze is more Long’s story than it is the young stripper’s. She is intimate witness to the final blaze of glory for a grandiose Southern politician and the preelectronic era of Southern politics. “I hate TV,” says Long, an electrifying stump speaker whose warts would have been magnified obscenely by the cathode tube. In involuntary retirement, he is reduced to watching Father Knows Best. Blaze concentrates on the last two years of Long’s contentious life, when barred by law from succeeding himself, the three-term governor of the Pelican State attempts to outwit the Louisiana Constitution and his adversaries by running as lieutenant governor on a ticket with a minion who, when elected, would resign in his favor. The gambit does not work, partly because, we are led to believe, of Long’s disgraceful liaison with Blaze. Long is devastated by defeat and deflated by retirement, but Blaze revives him by goading him to run for the Congressional seat of an ancient antagonist. The campaign is a last hurrah, and the old campaigner goes out with a flourish. Long suffers a heart attack early on election day but, fearful of demoralizing his supporters, refuses to be hospitalized until the polls have closed. Mortally ill, he sits all afternoon smiling through a hotel window at unsuspecting reporters. Shelton’s Long dies, amid the glory of Blaze, shortly after victory. In point of fact, Earl Long was stricken the night before the vote, August 27, 1960, and did not die until September 5. Shelton is less concerned with historical accuracy than dramatic structure. And the movie’s politics are murky; Newman’s Long, a solitary off-white knight surrounded by yesmen, does battle against yahoo bigots on behalf of cryptic causes. He careens between exuberance and lunacy, in a tantalizing striptease act whose lingering taste is pasty. OTHING LIKE a good robbery to bring a family close,” says Vito McMullen, who joins his father and his son in the heist that is the main dramatic business of Family Business. Grandfather Jessie, son Vito and grandson Adam join forces to burglarize a biotech laboratory and make off with plasmins whose industrial applications make them worth, they believe, a million dollars. Three THE TEXAS OBSERVER 41
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