Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
The big news last weekend was the storm brewing on Trump’s horizon that refused to blow over: adult-film star Stormy Daniels, after building pressure for weeks, finally made landfall on “60 Minutes” with intimate details of her one-night fling with Donald J. Trump before he laid claim to the highest office in the land.
Some 60 years ago, another storm, a burlesque queen named “Tempest Storm” claimed to have bedded the young Senator John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts before he became—in the words of THE breathy blond Hollywood sex goddess—"Mr. President.” Ms. Tempest Storm, who just turned 90 and is the oldest burlesque queen alive, is the subject of an eponymous 2016 documentary about to premiere in Boston.
As I watched the documentary “Tempestand then listened to Ms. Stormy Daniels telling her tale to Anderson Cooper, I started wondering what beyond their “sexy” notoriety, respective pre-presidential romps, and Trump (Tempest is a diehard Trump voter) these dueling storms might have in common. What would the #MeToo movement mean to them?
Their backgrounds are surprisingly similar. Ms. Daniels grew up as Stephanie Clifford, in a poor tough neighborhood in Louisiana, the child of divorced parents. She began stripping at 17, and went on to success as an award-winning adult-film star, eventually writing, directing, and performing in porn movies. In 2005 she appeared as a pole dancer in Maroon 5’s “Wake Up Call” video, and in 2007 was the object of Steve Carell’s fantasies in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” In 2010, Stormy declared her candidacy for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in her home state. Along the way, she married three times, had a daughter, and won blue ribbons as an accomplished equestrian.
Stormy states emphatically that broadcasting her story now has absolutely nothing to do with #MeToo. “This is not a 'Me Too.' I was not a victim. I've never said I was a victim. I think trying to use me to—to further someone else's agenda, does horrible damage to people who are true victims.” While she describes the circumstances around her having sex with Trump as a “bad situation,” she definitively says it was “consensual.” Once a registered Democrat, Daniels recently told CBS news that her “libertarian values regarding both money and sex and the legal use of one for the other is now best espoused by the Republican Party."
Politics has nothing to do with her speaking out now; her motive as stated on “60 Minutes” is personal integrity. “I'm not okay with being made out to be a liar, or people thinking that I did this for money … ” In fact, she is at risk of being sued for millions of dollars each time she violates the non-disclosure agreement she signed with Trump’s attorneys for a mere $130,000.
Tempest Storm seems an equally independent spirit. I spoke to the nonagenarian on the phone recently after watching with fascination the remarkably poignant and intimate documentary about her life and career. Growing up poor in a broken home in Georgia as Annie Blanche Banks, she also began her career as a stripper at age 17, having survived tough times—a hometown gang rape at 14 and molestation by her stepfather. Her way out was “burlesque,” and she knew she would “have to do it all on my own.”
The conventions of burlesque were almost decorous in the 1940s and ‘50s with its pasties and diaphanous layers creating “artful” illusions of sexuality. Eventually becoming known as the Queen of Exotic Dancers and an iconic Burlesque Hall of Famer, Tempest Storm appeared in films like “Teaserama” with ‘50s pin-up Bettie Page and eventually made it all the way to Carnegie Hall, where she became the only burlesque queen ever to perform there.
Onstage, Tempest says she was at “home” and utterly “in charge … I didn’t do complete nudity … They thought I did, but I didn’t.” She also says she “wouldn’t sit at tables … (and) refused to mix with the customers.” She “never drank, did drugs, smoked,” or traded sex for professional advancement.
She too made choices in her personal life that compromised that advancement. She married four times, the last and longest to Herb Jeffries, a vocalist with Duke Ellington’s band and the first black “singing cowboy” in Hollywood. Tempest says she “never thought of him as a black man.” The interracial marriage which produced a daughter was controversial and “very dangerous” in the 1950s, causing her budding film career with MGM to dry up.
Tempest doesn’t understand women who didn’t speak up before and are speaking up now. When I ask her about the #MeToo movement, she also wants nothing to do with it, but for very different reasons than Ms. Daniels. “It’s terrible what all these women are doing … strange to me to see these women talking about [what men did] 30 years ago … Why didn’t they speak up then?” She says she never would have gone up to someone’s room to begin with. (Take that, Harvey Weinstein.)
When I press her about what some of these men did to women, she agrees, “It’s terrible … Sex is why we’re all here—male and female …(but) men should stop harassing women … and women should speak out—but there’s a way of doing it.”
Her advice to women? “Hold your ground.” In a relationship she says, “I called the shots.” So the woman who purportedly slept with JFK (“the best President we ever had”) and Elvis (“He was really funny”) and once appeared with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin as “the girl with the two biggest props in Hollywood” (a reference to her naturally voluptuous décolletage) says she never felt she wasn’t taken seriously. She feels she never compromised her self-respect and says even now, “I had a lot of power.” Ms. Storm performed into her eighties, is the subject of a vinyl biography produced by Jack White, and is currently seeking a distributor for her clothing line!
Two women. Two eras. These two have built their very public careers—in professions largely shaped by and catering to the male gaze—on grit and independence. As they look themselves and us squarely in the eyes—they do it their way. Who are we to judge?
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A tribute to Doris Day.