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Postmodern Village
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Punch + Judy: Inside the Artistry of the C-B.S. Biopic
by T.S. DeHaviland

Much could be made of the historical inaccuracies of the revealing new C-B.S. miniseries Punch + Judy: the Inside Story. For instance, Punch was not, indeed, a Brit but a transplanted Italian whose roots went back much deeper, possibly to Greece. His given name, Pulcinella, was changed only after he arrived in England (Bramall). Likewise, Judy, originally known as Joan, was a later addition to the act, and her origins are probably English, not, as the miniseries indicates, rural Indiana (Bramall). This is an attempt, perhaps, to Americanize what was seen as a distinctly British act. One can appreciate The Beatles, for instance, as a rock n’ roll band, turning out Little Richard covers and making young girls swoon, or as musical innovators, incorporating LSD experiences and complex in-studio effects into their work. But to be fully understood, one must see The Beatles as both products and critics of post-Empire British society. Indeed, their irreverence of The Queen in that little ditty on The White Album comes from a place very similar to the irreverence represented by the Punch and Judy act as it came, more-or-less fully formed, out of the stage shows and off the streets and boardwalks of England’s recreational gathering places. The same culture that brought us Punch brought us Wedgewood pottery; the same culture that brought us the Divine Right of Kings brought us the Magna Carta. In other words, England has always had as much of a populist, anti-authoritarian streak as it has had a stiff and stodgy exterior. It is both opera box and groundling at once.

Punch + Judy must then retrofit itself into the fundamentally American idiom of irreverence and informality without the counterbalance of established propriety. Writer/director Cameron Crowe does this with that most American of forms: the celebrity tell-all story. By casting Eva Longoria as the volatile Punch and Vincent D’Onofrio as the obstreperous Judy, Crowe asks not just that each actor stretch her or his range by playing against genotype, but challenges the very notion of what it is the Hollywood biopic ought to be up to.

From the scenes of Punch vomiting up a stomach full of Quaaludes and Stolichnaya after an all night bender with Dennis Hopper (here played by Woody Harrelson) in 1976, to Judy’s hauntingly depressive suicide attempt from an overdose of Chlor-Trimeton in 1982, we get to see the impact of celebrity at close quarters. Crowe, controversially, goes into stark detail about Judy’s 1989 arrest for possession of heroin and her subsequent stint in Betty Ford’s Special Clinic for Puppets and Marionettes, a move criticized by the Judy family, who argued that Judy deserved some privacy after a long, and very public, career. It was protested, too, and by the Puppet and Marionette community who contended that it painted them all with the same brush. K. T. Frog, acting president of the Puppets and Marionettes of America (PAMA), said at the miniseries’s premier that “I may look green, but being of both Puppet-American and Marionette-American lineage, I can unequivocally state that not all of us are dropouts and wasteoids, Fozzy Bear notwithstanding” (Gliatto 32). Also prominent in the series is Punch’s strained and often violent marriage to Carrie Fisher, made more difficult as Fisher’s rocketlike ride to celebrity on the vehicle of the Star Wars franchise funhouse-mirrored Punch’s decline from the heady days of the Mod Scene of the 1960s to the relative obscurity of his solo show at the Las Vegas Holiday Inn. By focusing on these aspects of Punch’s and Judy’s careers Crowe sheds the normal expectations of a biopic and turns the genre into a sort of grand tragicomedy.

As expected, there is plenty of action with brickbats, and Crowe and co-writer Clive Barker get kudos for their accurate portrayal of the great talent in combat and choreography evinced by the Punch and Judy act. Their grace and deadliness carried over off the stage–this was a duo that knew how to take a blow and how to administer one. As the miniseries points out, several major hotel chains refused to put Punch and Judy up during the world tour of their live show in 1968 citing liability concerns. As Kitty Kelly reports in her unauthorized biography of the duo, they had their “batting arms” insured for $1 million by Lloyd’s of London in the event of injury or undue strain (445). It’s hard not to believe they didn’t make a claim for the scene in which Punch cleaves in two the oak dining table in the executive suite at the Detroit Marriot in June of 1968 with one expert blow. Judy herself is shown karate-chopping Miss Piggy into the glass mirror behind the bar at The Sands in 1979. The two were later known to be sparring partners after their differences were reconciled.

Punch + Judy: the Inside Story certainly has its flaws, both in terms of accuracy and aesthetics, but it is expertly directed by Crowe and superbly acted by D’Onofrio and Longoria. Clive Barker’s dialogue is a bit wooden–one is led to believe the main characters have something stuck up their butts at all times–but this represents one of his best efforts to date despite that fact. With these production values, quality acting, and Crowe’s seeming insistence on rewriting the celebrity tell-all, we are posed with an interesting question: sure, Punch + Judy is great tv, but is it good art? By casting against gender and pushing the frontiers of factuality, Crowe and his collaborators and cast ask for this work to be taken as more than your run-of-the-studio miniseries. As with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, we have to ask if the medium of television is even up to the task. Can art be sustained in 8-minute bits interrupted by commercial breaks? Have we completely forgotten the ringing afterglow of a badly bruised Judy as she climbs out of her wrecked Ferrari 308 if an ad taunting us with the latest Hot Brunette Doritos Girl or the latest upbeat message about how “good” McDonald’s food is intervene between the climbing out and the calling for help?

Celebrity conflates our notion of art and artist, of course, and so it is difficult to tell what of Punch + Judy constitutes clear aesthetic choices on the part of Barker and Crowe and what derives directly from the Pollockesque canvases that the lives of the subjects present. If the art of William Carlos Williams is the be believed, then it really can exist, and exist better, in the interstices of our professional and commercial lives. With its sensationalistic and salacious details, perhaps the lives of Punch and Judy can exist only as art between the cracks of commerce, as abnormality offset by the banality of an advertized world.

In one scene, Punch is shown heaving all of the furniture of his hotel room in Dubuque, Iowa off the balcony and into the swimming pool below. There’s not much new here: it’s your standard celebrity-behaving-badly scene. But scored with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and filmed in garish, cartoonish, slow-motion, the scene becomes something more akin to an unnatural mating of Baz Luhrmann and a Heironymus Bosch painting. And I don’t mean a Baz Lurhmann film either; I mean Baz Luhrmann. With the randomness that only advertising executives are able to accidentally create, this scene was followed in most major markets by one of those creepy “see Spot save” commercials produced by the unconscionably hip Target stores’ vast reserve, this one, I think, featuring prepubescent ballerinas dressed up like mice.

If truth and beauty are truly equivalent, as John Keats contended, then the anguish of a celebrity, and that celebrity’s God-given right to trash any hotel room he damn-well pleases, is the height of veracity, at least as presented by Cameron Crowe ca. 2006. And dancing mouse-girl ballerinas? Keats is silent when it comes to cute-but-disturbing. And perhaps that is the point: Punch + Judy shows not so much that we retreat into art but that we retreat from the oppressive irrationality that is advertising. That the tv miniseries itself is a commercial venture would seem a bit problematic to this approach, but far be it from me to commit the intentional fallacy.

The tragedy of celebrity has merely become (yet) another trope, another formula upon which to hang the apparatus of art. One thinks of Oliver Stone’s The Doors, a film that is not about Jim Morrison, but about the art of the dissolution of the life of a rock musician named Jim Morrison, or the highly under-rated Jean-Luc Godard biopic of Sir Stirling Moss, 300 SLR. Each brought to the heart of the celebrity the art of the film, recreating cohesive life stories into the mish-mash of the arthouse scene.

In another pivotal moment in Punch + Judy, Judy is discovered showering with Warren Beatty (Anne Bancroft in one of her last performances) when she is due on the set of a taping of the pilot episode of the ill-fated Punch and Judy FlowerPower Hour, a variety show that was originally slated for the 1969 lineup of new programs on ACB*. It’s another throwaway scene as far as the advancement of the plot is concerned: every Hollywood scandal movie featuring a leading lady must have a sex scene with Warren Beatty to be taken seriously. But in the hands of Crowe and Barker, the scene is intercut with shots of headless torsos and the My Lai Massacre, thus revealing the true importance of celebrity in American life. In its capacity for social commentary, then, Punch + Judy fulfils the final purpose of art and further disturbs the balance between itself and commerce, which, with its aggrandizement of the status quo, is never able to deal with social issues head on: it must either lampoon or ignore through a sort of distracted absurdism.

To the age-old question of “Why must celebrities misbehave?” Crowe and Barker have an answer in Punch + Judy. Meanwhile, or rather immediately after the darkened screen indicating the next commercial break, Johnson & Johnson pose the even more venerable “Why can my whites never be white enough?”

*The legal sparring between C-B.S. and ACB/Dizzey over this scene has become a bit of contemporary Hollywood legend. The airing of the miniseries was delayed three years due to the litigation, and certain aspects of the scene, notably Bancroft’s wardrobe (or lack thereof) had to be changed substantially. (See also www.hotnudeseniorcelebs.com.)

Works Cited

Bramall, Eric. “Who Is Mr. Punch?” (1973). Punch and Judy on the Web. Ed. Chris Somerville. 7 Feb. 2006. <http://www.punchandjudy.com/who.htm>.

Gliatto, Tom. “PAMA Blasts C-B.S. Miniseries: Frog at 11.” People 23 Jan. 2006: 31+.

Kelly, Kitty. Punch and Judy: The Inside Story. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

Punch + Judy: The Inside Story. Dir. Cameron Crowe. Writ. Cameron Crowe and Clive Barker. Perf. Eva Longoria and Vincent D’Onofrio. C-B.S. Productions, 2006.