Upstairs, Downstairs 2011: The salvation of camp?

Notes from the fashion apocalypse.
April 14 2011 12:18 PM

The End of Camp?

Startling, appalling, tragic evidence that camp—that glorious mode—is dead.

Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce. Click image to expand.
Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce 

A couple of Sundays ago I had a gnarly mood swing in front of the telly. It happened while Kate Winslet was frowning and mumbling her way through the third episode of Mildred Pierce, the HBO miniseries directed by Todd Haynes. Though meticulously art-directed, this rendering of the James M. Cain pulp novel is the polar opposite of the archly fabulous 1945 movie that won Joan Crawford an Oscar. All the heavy maquillage, gut-busting histrionics and scenery-blocking shoulder pads of that classic film noir have been replaced by soft, Depression-era mossy tones and a relentlessly faithful-to-the-original-novel screenplay. In an effort to avoid cheesy pastiche, Haynes has stripped away the sizzle and the style and the Eve Ardens and the Butterfly McQueens, and replaced them with—quelle horreur!—authenticity.

Simon Doonan Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.

Halfway through, I could stand it no more. I turned to my dog Liberace and I screeched, "You know what's wrong with this show don't you? It's not bloody camp enough!"

Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Click image to expand.
Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest

Earlier that same day a pal had called me in a swivet. He'd paid good money to attend a matinee of the Roundabout Theater\ production of The Importance of Being Earnest. "How was Lady Bracknell?" I asked, anticipating a torrent of enthusiasm for Brian Bedford's much-talked-about tranny turn. (As you are no doubt aware, the character of Lady Bracknell, most especially when played by Edith Evans in the 1952 movie, is the heart and soul of Oscar Wilde's aphorism-strewn classic.) "Terrible," replied my friend, "He throws away the handbag line to avoid sounding camp."

Clearly there is a conspiracy afoot to deprive us all of the one thing that can make life bearable. Something must be done to protect and promote the endangered majesty of camp.

In order to safeguard this valuable commodity, it is important that we first define it. While Susan Sontag has her Notes on "Camp," of which there are 58, I have but one. It is, if you will, more of a Post-it Note on Camp. Here goes:

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In my opinion camp is simply a matter of doing things AS IF you are doing them. Diving into a swimming pool? Throw your arms heavenward and give it the full Greg Louganis/Esther Williams treatment. When you dive into a pool as if you are diving into a pool, as opposed to executing an earnest quotidian plop, the result is magical: That pool is transformed from a grody Band-Aid-strewn chlorine bath into a veritable LAGOON!

My as if theory applies to all actions, great and small. When a camp person enters a room or eats an apple or reads Hello! magazine, the camper performs the action as if he/she is entering a room/eating an apple/reading a copy of Hello! magazine. While the noncamp person always comports her-/himself apologetically and anonymously and sincerely (as Kate Winslet does in the new Mildred Pierce), a camp person, in sharp contrast, purposefully and glamorously and knowingly plays the part (a la Joan Crawford). The results may be less subtle, but the resulting emotions, no matter how drenched in artifice and sentimentality, are always more memorable, emphatic, and communicative.

Susan Sontag touches on the as if idea with No. 10 of her Notes on Camp: "Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It's not a lamp but a "lamp"; not a woman, but a "woman."' Truth be told, No. 10 is one of the few of old Sue's thoughts that I can fully understand. (Like many camp followers, I am not the brightest Art Nouveau lamp in the room. When you devote your life to irony and facade you can become a bit simple.)

One thing I, even I, can clearly glean from these seminal scribblings is the sense that Susan Sontag, God rest her soul, is attempting to caution rather than encourage the reader. She, like Mr. Haynes, is clearly a little scared of camp and its allegedly corrosive effects. She is especially nervous about intentional camp, or "acting campy." I share this latter concern: The most deliciously campy camp—whether it's The Terminator or Busby Berkeley—is always unintentional. The best example of this might well be the movie Showgirls. Conceived, shot, and acted with deadly seriousness (after extensive probing, Elizabeth Berkeley and Kyle McLachlan have both personally assured me of this fact), this incredible movie reaches the nirvana that we, back in the camp 1960s, used to call "high camp."

I believe that certain individuals are genetically predisposed to develop a camp sensibility. I base this sweeping generalization on moi; a quick overview of my childhood—I was often to be found flitting round the backyard in the style of the Ballet Russe—clearly shows that I was a born camp. My parents, Terry and Betty, were also innately camp. Camp is, in fact, what brought my parents together in the first place: They collided in a soup kitchen at the end of the War after butch Terry noticed glam Betty's über-camp tomato-red suede platform shoes and seamed stockings. "What are you going to do with your life?" she asked as they contemplated the ruins of postwar England. "Eat lotuses and wear dove-grey spats," replied my studly dad, then jumped onto his motorbike. Betty climbed on the back and off they sped.

Upstairs, Downstairs. Click image to expand.
Upstairs, Downstairs

Back to camp and its potential extinction: There is hope. Last Sunday night Liberace and I tuned in to watch the remake of Upstairs, Downstairs. The original '70s sitcom was a heady mix of high camp, social commentary, and drama. (Didn't poor Ruby, the scullery maid, hang herself with her own knicker elastic?) When, five minutes into the action, Eileen Atkins came flying down the stairs—with her osprey-feathered hat, pet monkey, and turban'd male secretary, she resembled a Lartigue photo come to life—Liberace and I heaved a sigh of relief. We settled back to watch the camp unfurl, as if we were settling back to watching the camp unfurl.

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