Patty Duke died this week, and she and I go way back. I have no memory of when she won the Oscar, but I do remember every word of the theme song to her television show. And that was before I even knew about the Ballet Russes. Or Crepe Suzette.
When I found out about her death, I had to go to YouTube to hear that theme song and watch the awards acceptance speeches. And the water scene from “The Miracle Worker”…even the short clip is so powerful. Oh, yeah, and the catfight. If you don’t know which catfight and you identify as gay, I am collecting your gay card. Right now. Seriously. Hand it over.
It’s not that Patty was really a gay icon. After all, she spat out, “All right, faggot, start explaining”…not exactly words you’d expect to hear from Judy or Barbra or Liza. Not that this would be disqualifying, it’s just that Patty wasn’t really a diva. Except as Neely.
(Question for the older readers…what percentage of people under the age of, say, 30 still have no idea what this column is about?)
Years before Faye Dunaway gave great Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest”—a high water mark in the camp canon, Patty had given us Neely O’Hara. And while most of the gay boys watching were drawn to the glacial beauty of Barbara Parkins or the blond beauty of Sharon Tate, Patty—barely out of her teens and the youngest Oscar winner until that time—was drinking straight from liquor bottles, throwing liquor bottles at her husband (the one who needed to start explaining), and emptying liquor bottles into the pool for disinfectant. Your basic diva gone bad stuff. Maybe some of us were drawn a little to that, too. (Nod knowingly if you have EVER drunk straight from a liquor bottle. Even a small one.)
Patty’s Neely pops pills, wakes up in sleazy hotel rooms with strange men, and goes to rehab (it didn’t work). She even sings off-key to her own records on a jukebox in a dive bar. Is this sounding familiar? And Patty gives it her everything she’s got…all in, as we say these days. It’s as if her director wasn’t even on the set when the cameras were rolling. But who cares? The performance is over-the-top, but it is still a performance. I’ll take one Patty Duke pulling a wet wig out of a toilet and slinging it across a bathroom any day to virtually anything that Lopez, Aniston, or Garner (the Jennifer try-my-gay-nerves-umvirate) has done in a movie in the last 10 years.
After Neely, the real Patty went on to win three Emmy awards to go with her Oscar, starred as the first woman POTUS on television, and was the actual president of the Screen Actors Guild. She fought back against her own addictions successfully and eventually was diagnosed as bipolar, becoming one of the first celebrities to go public with her illness and its treatment. All in all, a life of accomplishment…both personal and professional.
If I’d ever met her, maybe she would have said, “Who ya hiding from Helen? The notices couldn’t have been that bad.” I’d have known just what to reply and so would many gay men of my generation. And we’d have kicked Susan Hayward to the curb in order to play Helen Lawson just once opposite Patty. But with YouTube and my DVD, I don’t have to do that. Any of us can play with Patty anytime. And we will.
By the way, if you still need to buy a vowel to solve the puzzle title after reading this column, please sign up for my course entitled “20th Century Gay Sensibility.” Otherwise, you risk being found out and having your jaw wired shut and your knees super glued together. It’s up to you.