Flickhead
Book Review
By Ray Young

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Comfort and Joi

A new book by Joseph Dougherty

iUniverse Books, $11.95

Paper, 140 pages, 6 x 9.

For more information visit

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    In a variation on winning the lottery, dreams of stardom have lured any number of pretty young women to Hollywood where, nine times out of ten, they end up as waitresses, salespeople, or “escorts,” that dubious occupation of diverse classification, be it celebrity arm ornament or high-priced hooker. Few make it to the big screen, and fewer become stars. (“You can only fuck your way so far to the top,” Sharon Stone once observed. “After that you need some talent.”) Among the thousands of hopefuls floating in and out of Tinsel Town, Joi Lansing had the perseverance and looks to carve out something of a career. joi004.jpgToday her name is all but forgotten, though Orson Welles afforded her a degree of immortality as the girl who hears something ticking in her head at the beginning of Touch of Evil.

    A playwright and Emmy winner for his work on the series thirtysomething, Joseph Dougherty has written extensively for television and the theater. But his new book, Comfort and Joi, chronicles a long weekend when he entertains a personal fantasy, an investigation into the life and career of Joi Lansing. His friends think he’s nuts to write a book about a platinum-blonde bombshell nobody’s ever heard of, who received third or fourth (or no) billing in movies which, for the most part, no one cares about.
    Armed with a laptop and a bag full of videotapes and DVDs, Dougherty is less concerned with piecing together a formal biography than evaluating his own reaction to celebrity, entertainment, middle age, and an actress he describes as “a beautiful beacon in a Sargasso of bad filmmaking.” He doesn’t track down surviving relatives and old co-stars to reconstruct her life. (Just forty-three-years-old, Lansing died in 1972 from breast cancer.) What he ends up with is a conjectural, bittersweet, and often funny obituary — for Joi, for Hollywood, for his own vaporized past, its ideals and principles recently bulldozed into submission by a callous generation eager to dismiss “everything that came before as worthless, slow and reeking of the grave.”
    Regarding the post-World War II phase of busty peroxide screen goddesses, the author recalls a “bolder symbolism, when you knew the level of a character’s sexual experience by the saxophones on the soundtrack when she walked into a room.” Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Dooren, and, on the European front, Anita Ekberg and Brigitte Bardot dyed their hair and heaved their ripe va-va-voom assets across CinemaScope screens. Under all that weight Joi found herself taking bit parts in low rent science fiction and exploitation pictures, even a post-Leo Gorcey Bowery Boys movie, “bottom-of-the-bill second features to which she brought a radiance unmerited by their budgets.” She eventually found relatively steady employment in television (three seasons on The Bob Cummings Show), nightclub acts and dinner theater.
    The author draws a correlation between the length of her screen time reflecting the overall quality of a given film. In the classic Singin’ in the Rain, for example, Joi’s unbilled and visible in a corner of the frame for less than a minute. Twenty years later, she’s third-billed behind Christopher Mitchum and John Carradine in the grade-Z ghetto of Big Foot, her character a ludicrous spin on Fay Wray in King Kong. Floating in and out of sundry Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin vehicles (a Mormon who didn’t smoke or drink, Dougherty imagines Joi was “the Rat Pack’s designated driver”), her bikinied bod was prominently displayed in the ads for Marriage on the Rocks even though she’s twelfth-billed and on screen for less than five minutes.
    The ‘comfort’ in Joi comes from her ability to lift the obsessed author from a lackluster routine. Isolated in a borrowed beachfront house, occasionally distracted by an enticing next door neighbor, Dougherty freely digresses in brief but vivid recollections of misspent youth. Dull bachelor parties, miscalculated overnight get-togethers with ‘the guys,’ an erotically-charged and sadly squandered opportunity with an attractive co-worker in a dark closet — these are lively tangents from a fiftysomething Baby Boomer who’s wary about the legacy of the past.
    “All my references, all my cultural shorthand is becoming obsolete,” he explains. “I don’t think I’d mind, or maybe I’d mind less, if they were being replaced with something of equal eloquence, but that’s not happening. Lately, everything seems to be drained of meaning.” Part of this could be all-purpose midlife whining, but as a member of the same generation I appreciate his anxiety over the radical shift of our new culture and all its hollow posturing. “Effort, discipline, patience, humble progression toward a desired goal; all the grown-up attributes have fallen out of favor along with the very concept of ‘growing up’ as a reasonable aspiration.”
    Thirty years after her death, Joi Lansing survives as words attached to pieces of memorabilia. You can buy her on paper or on video, those ready made portals to the past. Her life has long since lapsed, and Dougherty’s decision that Comfort and Joi remain subjective indicates an awareness of one probable truth. Under the scrutiny of a fact-based bio, we’re likely to discover a simple and decent woman trying to earn an honest living, a divorcée and cancer victim. As with all of our screen idols, she could never live up to the lofty expectations and fantasies of a dreamer in the audience — no one could. Part of the brilliance of this book is it’s method of presenting us these many facets through one smitten voice. Pleasure, happiness and contentment will forever fluctuate for him and the rest of us, but Joi is Dougherty’s immovable feast. I’m sure she would’ve adored the attention.

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