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Sunday, December 11, 2005

BOOK REPORT: COMFORT AND JOI

COMFORT AND JOI
Joseph Dougherty
iUniverse


Have you ever been so bored watching a scene in movie that your attention begins to wander in the direction of the actors in the background? Have you found that often they are more interesting than the principal actors?

Look at them back there, sitting at their table waiting for their food. What are they talking about? They look like they might be arguing, but about what? She seems to be reprimanding him in some way but he'll have none of it. I wonder what he did, or what she thinks he did.

And what of the actors? Are they hired for their ability to act or to merely fill in the scenery around the main characters? Who are those people?

Thankfully, Joseph Dougherty in his lovingly conceived and constructed book Comfort and Joi examines one such actress, Joi Lansing, the unearthly beauty who spent over two decades exceptionally filling in the background. Dougherty shines in this solitary trip into film, film history, and how one seemingly small player can have a lifelong effect on one man sitting in the dark.

If you spend enough time watching movies, you can't help but become aware of how movies are made, the logistics of it all. Yes, there is a script and actors who tell a story. But then there's the rest of it. There are costumes and makeup and hair and sets and lights and props and all the decisions that are made as to their use. There are the extras, too. When we see people lurking about in the fuzzy background of a scene, it isn't by accident. These are professionals doing a job. Like any other actor, they've been cast for their talent and looks and placed in the scene for a purpose. Director's soon learned that Joi Lansing's jaw-dropping beauty could only improve a scene, even if all she was doing was waiting for someone to get off the phone. That, combined with an uncommon professionalism, afforded her the chance to work with, among others, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Orson Welles. Yes, that's her in the famous three minute opening shot of Welles' Touch of Evil, sitting in the white Chrysler convertible.

Joi Lansing was gorgeous. I must admit that I had to go online to see the photos of this woman that so seized Dougherty's imagination that he wrote a whole book. In a word I was flabbergasted. I've seen pinups and bombshells from the 50s and 60s and they differ in slight ways – this one's breasts are bigger than that one's but this one's got a prettier face than that other one – but in the end, they're all just pinups and bombshells. Lansing however, differed in a not so slight way. A confidence exuded from her that made the others look like amateurs. The photos show a glimpse of it. Its full glory exists on celluloid. It is a look of total awareness of the effect she had when she walked into a room. Powerful. Beyond sexy. Welles described her character in his 1958 television production of The Fountain of Youth as "One of those creatures who stands for something greater than talent, greater than beauty."

Comfort and Joi is a joy to read. Smartly, it's not a biography. Instead it's a recounting of a November weekend spent by the narrator alone at some friends' beach house in Oxnard, California, the purpose of which is to view all of Lansing's films and hopefully come to a greater understanding of why this woman has had such an effect on him. The book bounces from in depth descriptions of movie plots and Lansing's roles in them, to the memories they arouse in the narrator, each a perfect story of its own. The book goes further than narrative, though. Never short on speculation, Comfort and Joi asks big questions about where we fit in our own lives. Are we the stars of our own movie or are we in the background of someone else's? I was rapt.

PREVIOUS BOOK REPORT: THE SECRET LIFE OF THE LONELY DOLL: THE SEARCH FOR DARE WRIGHT




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