The Awful Truth

Cintra Wilson wonders why the moral character of artists is so much harder to read than that of cartoon good-and-evil figures like Joe McCarthy and Joseph Welch.

By Cintra Wilson
Published April 21, 1998 11:14AM (EDT)

Ever since I went on this Kurosawa bender, I've been obsessed with trying to tell if people are "good" or "bad." When I was in Indonesia, you could immediately suss it out: The bad people hustled too fast and smiled too much and touched you inappropriately and had a shallow, mirrorized look in their eyes. The good people were guileless and earnest and patient and looked at you without their eyes jittering. It was obvious that they had some feeling for the religious importance of kindness and honesty.

With some Americans, it's just as easy. I recently saw "Point of Order," a documentary featuring the actual televised coverage of the Senate hearings in which Sen. Joe McCarthy and his henchman Roy Cohn went up against the Army. The Army accused McCarthy and Cohn of trying to get special favors for Pvt. David Schien, an ex-McCarthy staff member who just happened to be a beautiful-looking boy of the Tommy Tune variety, with size 13 feet and only God (and perhaps Cohn) knew what else. McCarthy and Cohn retaliated by accusing the Army of containing subversive Communist cells and holding Pvt. Schien hostage in order to prevent them from bringing the Army-commie charges up before Congress.

It is truly amazing to see what a lizardlike, hubris-crazed shitheel McCarthy was. With his bile-sweating demeanor and that black tongue slithering back and forth out of his horrible head, it is difficult to see how anybody ever took him seriously. The congressmen interviewed in this film are so uniformly appalled by him and his ridiculously awful behavior that frequently they just start laughing. It really makes you wonder how people so transparently evil ever get that far in the world -- as soon as you expose them to the light of day their scary wrongness is as visible and tumescent as the veins in their forehead.

Joseph Welch, the Boston lawyer who represented the Army, is truly heroic, retaining his perfect manners and coming off like Santa Claus while hurling barbed double entendres at Cohn. At one point there is a priceless exchange concerning a doctored photograph that allegedly came from Schien.

"If it didn't come from Pvt. Schien, where did it come from? The pixies?" asked Welch. "Pixie, what's a pixie?" returned McCarthy. "A pixie is a close relation to a fairy. Have I enlightened you?" retorted Welch, pointing the question with both flower-blasting barrels at Cohn, looking as brave as a child throwing water on a witch. Cohn just sat there simmeringly furious, seeping nerve-gas through both eyes. An incredible moment of good vs. bad, more poignant than any battle of the Ewoks. It was so obvious who was who, the whole fight looked like an exercise drill -- McCarthy plays the virulent goblin, Cohn gets to be the guy who blows dead dogs in his dreams. We put on our raincoats, set the building on fire and put it out again. Everybody go home.

With artists, however, it isn't so easy to sort out the good and bad. They can be so much of both it's hard to decide.

I was shocked yesterday to receive more news of Mark E. Smith, seminal pop icon and leader of the post-punk band the Fall. I saw Smith sucking wildly at Coney Island High the other night, fucked-up to the point of belligerent vacancy and leaning on the equipment, his face backing into itself like an old vegetable. He had a black eye and freshly missing teeth. Apparently he was arrested a couple of days later for beating up his girlfriend/keyboardist in a Manhattan hotel room. The black eye he had was evidently dealt him by the same girlfriend -- according to an online music news source, she hit him in the face with the phone the night before while they were arguing about their hotel lodgings. Mark E. posted bail after a night in the pokey and vanished. He was still gone at the time the article was written. His band was gone, too; only the abused girlfriend showed up for the plane to the U.K. to commence a European tour. Mark E. was AWOL, with no money and no passport. Even his lawyer thought he might end up dead. His tour manager said that he is now "inebriated pretty much all the time." Mark E. Smith, a legend, a real artist, who has put out 25 great albums since 1978.

What happened? Why could nobody save him from himself? How many would-be interventions were thwarted or ineffectual? Evidently Smith has been an unsalvageable asshole for a really long time. He was, when I saw him, clearly derelict-level-unreasonable. His cheeks had that vertical pucker belonging only to diehard junkies and other party-slaves who have no nutritional liquids in their bodies -- the dimple running from eye to chin.
What was most interesting about Mark E. Smith onstage was that despite his disgraceful, halfway-cured-into-jerky state, he still sounded exactly like Mark E. Smith. That inspired stiletto-slur, that drunk Oxford Nazi methadrine peep-show barker voice, as if coming from elsewhere in the universe and only using Smith as a perverse telephone, spookily prevailed.

I tried to find out what happened to Mark E. -- the Fall News fan source online only offered one sentence about the whole travesty -- "Mark is safe." Really? I want to think Mark E. is safe. I want to think Mark E. is "good." I can't tell if he is or isn't. She hit him with a phone.

With simpler types I am becoming such a crack judge of character that I am practically psychic when it comes to celebrity squalor. Just a couple of weeks ago, in my Oscar column, I noted that Jennifer Lopez, whatever her moral character, really looked like she needed the guiding iron career hand of some fat, rich Svengali who could put her into some kind of "Real Lady" training like that scary Canadian Orson Welles-looking creep did to Celine Dion when he turned her into Robo-Chanteuse. Now it turns out that Lopez is dating Tommy Mottola, the music sultan who built Mariah Carey like a kid playing with a box of Legos. Good job, Jennifer. Have him buy away your Echo Park Latina accent, make him teach you the names of all the different oysters. Soon you'll be palling around with Donatella Versace.

Don't be surprised if she puts out an album.

The Pia Zadora route to fame is the only way to go these days. Hollywood is a perverse small-town patriarchy that way. I'm surprised that these men don't have several wives, like tribal chieftains.

Hollywood People BAD: That one is easy. You can clip that out and keep it on a wall chart for easy referencing. Old Japanese actors like Takeshi Shimura: GOOD. Charlie Condon, R-N.C.: BAD. Bill Moyers: GOOD.

I'm still on the fence about New York residents in general. I'm not sure what they are, but they're pretty fun to be around.

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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