Underside by Katharine Coldiron
Kathy Ireland has an unfortunate voice. It is high and squeaky and entirely unpleasant, like someone’s unfunny imitation of a dumb-blonde voice. As a contemporary Letterman appearance proves, she is not faking this voice for the movie role of Wanda Saknussemm in the 1988 Golan-Globus film Alien from L.A.
Kathy Ireland’s voice makes you think all the worst, most sexist things possible about pretty girls being prettier when they keep their mouths closed. You want to hold up your hand in front of her mouth when she talks. You want her not to talk, to preserve her beauty. People probably thought this about Clara Bow.
No one told Kathy Ireland about her voice throughout the casting process, or indeed at any other time. Because she does not control it. She whines and squeals in it with abandon. If she knows her voice is awful, in the film, she’s pretending like hell not to.
Also, Kathy Ireland walks with no grace. She galumphs. She swings her arms like a chimpanzee. She does not act in Alien from L.A. so much as she galumphs through it, talentlessly, her sex appeal dropping with a thud when she speaks or walks.
And yet, she is long-limbed, tan, tall, ideally proportioned, and clear-eyed, with gorgeous hair and teeth. She is strong-boned but not sturdy; slim but not waiflike. Her body is not the kind you get from workouts, plastic surgery, and careful lighting. It is preternatural. It is a blessing. It’s a naturally perfect object, built by genetics or God to be photographed and adored.
Does this seem fair?
The ballet happens at least ninety minutes into the opera. The Trojan horse has come and gone in flame; Cassandra has persuaded all the women to stab themselves to death; Aeneas and his men have fled to the sea, as ghostly voices sing him ever onward to Italy. He stops in Carthage for a bit, trips, and falls in love with Dido, who, both times I have seen Les Troyens, a five-hour French opera, was sung by Susan Graham.
Anyway, the ballet. Dido and Aeneas and some other characters sit on some pillows and spend twenty-plus minutes of stage time watching ballet get performed for them. And, of course, we as audience are forced to watch, too.
Ballet is perfectly nice. Berlioz must have gambled that opera audiences and ballet audiences have a fairly large overlap. But it’s still an enormous amount of time for opera singers to not sing opera in the middle of an opera. They just watch. And, the first time I saw it, I sat there and wondered how much longer this could really go on. The answer is: a long time. Twenty-five minutes or more.
Let me tell you why Troyens is my favorite opera. This is true. I wouldn’t lie to you about opera. Are you ready?
In 1983, Meryl Streep is pregnant. She is wearing a terrible gold dress. She is glowing and slightly awkward as she comes to the podium.
I knew I’d win, she thinks.
Kevin was so good to work with, she thinks. Such a pro.
Is this what I need? she thinks. Will this do?
The baby kicks.
She gives an enthusiastic, but bland and centerless speech, thanking not-everyone. She looks embarrassed to be there. It’s probably the terrible dress.
I love being here, in front of everyone, she thinks. And this year I’m allowed to be fat, because of the baby. I’ve had to pee since the cinematography category. Half my speech is falling victim to my pregnancy brain. Why can’t I do this bigger? No way I’ll be up here again.
The baby kicks. Everyone applauds, and the music plays.
Oh, well, that’s over. Goodbye, spotlight.
Let me back to my seat now. Let me back to Don. He’ll make sure I can get to the ladies’ room before I ruin this awful dress.
During the ballet, I stopped thinking about the underside. For the first and, as yet, the only time ever. I looked at Susan Graham and Bryan Hymel and I lost track of them as singers doing their jobs, as people who might be hungry or nervous or bored or hot, as talents whose life circumstances impacted how well they were performing for me, who had to audition and learn the material and rehearse and hit their marks and follow the conductor and pace themselves and listen to each other and themselves and hit the notes and give the right amount of breath and feel the emotion and know the melody and follow the conductor and rehearse and pace themselves and go home and eat and sleep and shit and come back the next afternoon to get into costume and do it again. Wigs. Makeup. Sweat. The people breathing in the front row. The man coughing in the back. The lady a few rows down from me getting a peppermint out of a twist of plastic and it is the loudest thing since the Blitz and just what the hell is she thinking anyway to be crinkling plastic during an opera.
All I saw was Dido and Aeneas.
The dancers were not workers doing their jobs. They were ancient performers in a Carthaginian court performing for the queen and her consort. I did not care about the dancers’ lives, about whether this was a big break for her to be on stage at the Met or how long it took him to perfect that grand jeté he just did or whether they had eating disorders or spouses or children or scabby scarred feet.
All I saw was the ballet.
I don’t think you understand. I see a movie and I think about the guy holding the boom mike and whether his arms hurt. I read a book and I think about the writer’s husband and what he does while she’s working. I go to a play and I wonder whether the actors have to sneeze or fart, and whether this is their last shot to make a living out of this acting thing or it’s just another night, and whether the sound guy is falling asleep at the switch because his alcoholism is getting out of hand. All the time. Every time. Nothing keeps the curtain pulled against Oz, the Great and Powerful. I am Toto.
And lo, a miracle: for many spellbound minutes, I was lost in the pleasure of Berlioz’s romantic French soul and the dancers’ beautiful movement and the perfect love story that Dido and Aeneas unfold, eternally, in immortal Latin and immortal opera. Lost. Not to be found in my own head.
That is why.
Here is what makes Meryl Streep the most interesting actress of the late 20th century: she disappears without becoming invisible.
Kate Hepburn plays Kate Hepburn; Bogie plays Bogie. They play parts that resemble their personas, or they melt down the parts and mold them, plastic, to suit, like translucent Halloween masks. Their stardom imposes itself on the viewer, because they are Great Stars, too whole to play anything convincingly that is not, at core, themselves.
Meryl Streep does not play Meryl Streep. She plays other women. But you do not forget who she is, watching. I am watching Meryl Streep, you think, even while she spins the illusion of a three-dimensional character around you like Shelob’s web. She disappears into roles, but she maintains the face and charisma and mysterious essence of Meryl Streep. She is too Great a Star to be invisible, but she is too great a craftsman not to disappear.
Kathy Ireland is on the cheap, dim set of Atlantis, the underworld, on the second week of Alien from L.A. She is waiting, as actors must. She watches the director argue with a PA and flips through the Cosmo she brought with her that morning. It’s been read.
The men look at her, like they usually do, but no one talks to her except to boss her around. The women look at her forehead, or her chin, but not at her body or her eyes. Nothing is fun on this set. Nothing is funny, either.
Why have they done this to me, she thinks.
I wish I was at the movies, she thinks. Or at home with Greg.
I’m going to tell my agent about the director touching my boob, she thinks. Even if it was an accident. Which I think it probably was. He wasn’t looking at me.
She sighs. Drops the Cosmo flat on the ground next to her chair. Thap.
Give me a photographer, she thinks. A fan in my face, in my hair. All I have to do is point my hairline at the camera, open my mouth a little. The guy behind the camera calls me “darling” and I get paid, put my clothes on, go home. This here is boring, boring, boring and no one ever calls me “darling.”
I’m not an actress, she thinks. I didn’t know before. I thought I acted for the photographers. But that’s just looking. It’s just standing still.
It’s the only thing I can do.
And now everyone knows how I walk, and how I sound.
No one sits with her at lunch. She munches a chicken drumstick, tears a wheat roll in half, drinks Tab or Fresca – alone. The women, careful not to look at any other time, watch her eat. They watch her every day. They watch her as if they are themselves starving.
© 2017 Katharine Coldiron
Katharine Coldiron‘s work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.
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