It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young Hollywood starlet in possession of a lot of residual royalties checks must be in want of media attention. And then that starlet will go cuckoo banana crackers in a sad-but-engrossing kind of way.
I’ve been really worried about Amanda Bynes, you guys. She’s outpacing 2007 Britney when it comes to terrifyingly public emotional and physical descent. Shhh. I know. We are powerless to stop it. All I can do is put on the aesthetic nonpareil What a Girl Wants, watch that inspiring scene in which Daphne (Amanda, duh) and her dad (Colin Firth) bond while vintage shopping at a fictional London market (sort of in the way that romantic couples bond? It’s hella weird upon re-watch) in an exceptional early-2000s smash-cut montage AND TRY NOT TO CRY OVER WHAT ONCE WAS.
Okay, so I don’t actually love Amanda as much as it seems I do. I just really like What a Girl Wants because it’s the perfect balance of terrible and amazing and because Colin Firth. (Like remember Ian, Daphne’s gadabout jack-of-all-trades British kinda-boyfriend who makes out with her in a swan boat? Yes. Great.) It’s just that I, and I’m sure a lot of my generational cohorts, totally forgot about her until she started wearing that wig and talking about vagina murder. And I feel guilty about it, because I sort of feel like it’s our collective fault. We forgot about her, so she made us remember.
If an Amanda Bynes throws a bong from a significant height and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?
So anyway, I naturally got to thinking about other starlets and their inevitable public meltdowns. Britney, of course, and Lindsay Lohan. Poor Amy Winehouse in the “My Blake Incarcerated” days (RIP though forreal). Drew Barrymore was a hot mess in the 80s, before she went back to high school to write that article. And there are many more, going way back.
But who was the Ur-Hot Mess? Who made tabloids worth buying in those dark B.K. days (Before Kardashian)? This movement needs a standard-bearer, dammit. And I’ve decided that the face of this plague is Clara Bow, inspiration for Betty Boop, original It Girl, and possible fucker of domesticated animals.
After what seems like a pretty shitty childhood in Brooklyn during which her family lived at 14 (fourteen!) different addresses over 18 years and her mom died of epilepsy, Clara was discovered in what I can only assume was the pre-television ancestor of that America’s Idol Got Talent Voice show in 1921. The Simon Cowell of that production said that young Clara possessed a “genuine spark of divine fire” (which is sort of nice, so maybe it was the Paula who said it? I only ever watched one episode and it was in 2003 so forgive me). Armed with the spoils of victory and a lot of gumption, Clara went from audition to audition until she was finally cast in a few bit film roles, including a tomboyish part in Grit, which, interestingly, was penned by our sad alcoholic friend Scott (between rounds of wife-wrangling, no doubt).
Clara’s offers got bigger and more frequent, so she moved to Hollywood in 1923 where her career really took off. But like many of today’s starlets, she had daddy issues and wanted to bring her ol’ pops in from New York. Her producers didn’t want that to happen, which I didn’t understand until I read what Ms. Bow later said about their reunion: “I didn’t care a rap, for [what the mean producer guys thought], or my motion picture career, or Clara Bow, I just threw myself into his arms and kissed and kissed him, and we both cried like a couple of fool kids. Oh, it was wonderful.”
Remind you of some other couple we know? Maybe an Electra complex is a real accelerator in the starlet meltdown thing. Is there someone I can tell about this? I’m just genuinely worried about the Fanning sisters. They’re so blonde and wispy.
Anyway, by 1924, she’s a Certified Film Star. She had the all-important combo of earthiness, girlishness, and fuckability that is essential in any ingenue, but she was also one of the first actresses to have it. Remember when everyone was obsessed with Jennifer Lawrence a few months ago because she was so funny and pretty and talented at the same time? I imagine it was kinda like that, only amplified, because around this time, a full 50% of all Americans went to the movies at least once a week. That’s a goddamn lot. So when I say she was a star, I mean it — everyone knew who Clara was, and subsequently, everyone wanted to know EVERY MOTHERLOVING THING about her.
I should also mention that a piece on Clara around this time in Photoplay included this delightfully unsubtle sex allusion: “What is this quivering – pulsating – throbbing – beating – palpitating IT? Undeniably IT is a product of this decade. Indeed, you might say IT is a product of this hour. But what is IT?” So Clara’s production company slapped together a li’l movie called – you guessed it – It, and BOOM, Clara Bow is the world’s first “It Girl.” She was the girl everyone wanted to bone and befriend.
Clara-hunger among the plebians was at an all-time high. At the height of her fame, she was receiving 45,000 letters a month, which is probably the 1920s equivalent of 45 billion retweets. It was easy for the ‘bloids to talk about her supposedly “dreadful” manners and “bohemian” lifestyle and sell a few copies. But it was a hell of a lot easier when she started scandalizing so hard that every shitrag in town was calling her “Crisis-A-Day Clara.” Not as good as “Lindsanity,” but I’ll take it.
Now up through 1930, most Clara-related pearl-clutching had to do with this terrible thing she did called “dating,” wherein she was “seen” with “men” in “public.” Except for one time when she boned a married doctor and Mrs. Doctor subsequently named Clara as the reason for separation. But I mean what starlet worth her salt hasn’t broken up a marriage, right? Right.
In 1930, Clara and her BFF/hairstylist/secretary/ancilla Daisy DeVoe (whose name makes her sound like a cartoon villain and/or burlesque artist) got in a little tiff about cash, as so many stars and their human accessories do. Mo money mo problems, am I right? Things escalated, and while no one knows what really went down, by the end of it Daisy stole away into the night with a satchel full of Clara’s personal papers.
A lesser, clumsier slave-friend might have set Clara’s house on fire or permanently scarred her bankable face or something, but Daisy was no chump. Blackmail was her game. Clara, sensing this, called the fuzz instead of coming up with hush money. This ended up being a huge mistake.
For whatever reason, tabloid press were allowed in the courtroom during the subsequent trial. All those mags that were previously shocked by Clara’s man-dating WENT APESHIT with Daisy’s accusations. Clara Bow was a drunk. Clara Bow spent herself into destitution. Clara Bow did drugs. Clara Bow fucked a lot of men (later, an ambitious biographer would incorrectly say she fucked everyone on the USC football team). Clara Bow fucked a lot of women. Clara Bow had sex in public. Clara Bow participated in orgies. Clara Bow, when without a man, woman, tight end, or orgy, fucked dogs. Dogs, guys. Dogs.
This was actually printed in an actual publication that people actually read. And because she was the “It Girl,” because “it” was really “lots and lots of sexy sex,” because everyone knew who she was and wanted to be her and/or do her, people believed it. When someone’s nickname means “Sex Girl,” it’s pretty easy to believe that she has sex, and with lots of people. And dogs, I guess, though that seems morally and physically difficult.
The public, shitrags in hand, staged a massive campaign calling for her studio to fire her. Which happened. She made a couple more movies with different production companies, but by 1932, the Depression set in, and everything Clara represented — mirth, inhibition, pulchritude, champagne, sparkles — felt somehow inappropriate to people who didn’t have food to eat.
With her career irreparably fucked, she married a guy who became the Lieutenant Governor of Nevada. They settled on a cattle ranch and had two kids. So not as bad as you expected, right? Maybe there’s hope for Amanda yet. I mean, sure, Clara checked into a sanitarium in 1949 because she was having hallucinations and belly aches, and yeah, her psychiatrist’s notes reference a mysterious “butcher knife incident of 1922,” and okay, she became severely agoraphobic until her death in 1965.
But Amanda, listen to me. Sister to sister. Take off that wig, pull out those terrifying dimple piercing/implant things. Take a bubble bath. Eat a kale salad. Get it together. Call Britney. She should be your spirit animal. She is a success story. Talk about the fame, and the fans, and the pressure. Listen. Learn.
And then maybe call Colin because I’ve been waiting for a What a Girl Wants sequel a longass time.