2. Glamour

(noun) An attractive or exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing.
Beauty or charm that is sexually attractive.
(as modifier) Denoting or relating to sexually suggestive or mildly pornographic photography or publications.
(archaic) Enchantment; magic.

I’m in the Kubrick Archive. I’m reading the correspondence between the 2001: A Space Odyssey production team and the Pepsi Cola corporation. If you follow the communication chronologically there are notes logging a series of phone calls and then a written correspondence begins. The first of the letters in the correspondence file is a typed letter on blue notepaper. It is from Joan Crawford, then CEO of Pepsi. I am very caught by this letter and keep coming back to it.

I think at first that I’m excited by the letter simply because it’s written by a woman. It’s rare in this archive. There aren’t many women in significant roles. There are wonderful exceptions, like Joy Cuff who made some of the models for 2001 and I’m personally moved by a handwritten letter from Audrey Hepburn declining Kubrick’s invitation to be involved with his unrealised Napoleon project. The Hepburn letter is written from her home in Switzerland in 1968. ‘I still don’t want to work for a while,’ she writes, ‘so cannot commit or involve myself in any project at this time. I hope you can understand this …..’. She adds five dots at the end of her appeal. She adds the hope that Kubrick ‘will think of me someday again’. This letter is an announcement, conscious or unconscious, of Hepburn’s withdrawal from film. A series of dots stand in for the articulation of the feelings that surround this choice. Hepburn will not act on camera again until 1976 and then only sporadically afterwards. She writes to Kubrick as though he’ll understand, one (supposed) recluse to another.

The gendering of Kubrick’s archive is not something I feel the urge to complain about as I might do in other situations. One of the things I’m finding most moving about observing Kubrick’s process and re-addressing his film work is how rigorously and truly over the course of his life he attempts to analyse and reveal what it means to live life as a man. He looks at the roles men are expected to play and lays out the complexities and sacrifices that are made to live this life. And somehow, caught up in this, is the tone of Joan Crawford’s letter about whether or not a Pepsi Cola dispenser can be used as a prop in 2001: A Space Odyssey, in its future-vision.

On June 1st 1965 Crawford writes: ‘Roger dear Thank you so much for thinking of me and Pepsi.’ Me and Pepsi. Crawford has stepped out of the industry of Hollywood, out of the perfomance of self that Kubrick captured in his Look! magazine portrait (above) and into the landscape of commerce. ‘So glad you talked to Phil Hinerfield but please make it a point to meet this man over lunch one day’ she continues. ‘Besides being a hell of a businessman, he is a rare and blessed human being. Love, Joan’.

So, yes, there’s the thrill of holding a letter from Joan Crawford in my hands. Joan Crawford was a film star who (publicly) prided herself on answering all her fan mail personally. Letters are important to the characterisation of her public self. In my hands is a trace of this Joan, Hollywood Joan, but re-calibrated into Pepsi Joan. It is a trace of a Joan Crawford who has shifted position, as Audrey Hepburn has begun to do in her retreat from offers like Kubrick’s, to re-imagine herself beyond the screen persona beloved by many, to think how to survive in the world, the real world beyond the screen.

To survive in the landscape of the real, here she is, speaking to Kubrick’s assistant, in the performed language of mid-century business speak. It is confident, chummy. It is the language of something not yet familiar in the language of women, it is the fraternal language of joining in, of equality, of being part of things by being one hell of a guy.

Audrey Hepburn. Joan Crawford. They navigated the gendered world before the conscious arguments of feminism made a space for more choice about how to perform gendered identity. Pioneers both. Crawford’s perfectionism. Hepburn’s open intelligence. Born two decades apart, their screen performances imagine and portray the new women the twentieth century gave us.

On a more local scale, the letter in my hand makes me think of my mother. She worked in advertising in London in the 1960s. One of her accounts was Pepsi Cola and when I was a child she would often entertain me with stories of the crates of Pepsi that would arrive in her office in a manner reminiscent of the hampers of war-time supplies sent by North American relatives. She described the comparable level of excitement they would elicit. In her telling there was something fairy-tale – the fizz of glamour that the drink, an American drink, gave to the post-war city. The arrival of those crates made the world smaller, made the future-promise of that America come nearer, made the present and the future, the here and elsewhere, collide. In the fairy tale telling though, this sense of promise was shadowed by the formidable nature of Joan Crawford’s own visits to town to check over her business. My mother would describe this in pantomime terms – Crawford the icy queen of Pepsi, glamorous, rich, sweeping into the office, a visitation of something otherworldly, but, in my mother’s words, ‘tough as old boots’.

Here in the archive, holding this letter in my hands, thinking about the careful pitch of Crawford’s tone, I feel less cartoon about my response to this story now. In the letter Crawford is brazening it out, playing a woman in a man’s world with a charm that softens her entitlement at being there. I wonder now whether my mother’s characterisation of Pepsi Joan, the wicked stepmother, was actually fair. Was Joan Crawford an unusually strict boss or was it simply that the impact she created when she landed in my mother’s office was because she was a woman playing a man’s role? As an exception did she just feel shocking?

One of my favourite pictures of my mother is of her sitting on the back of one of the stone lions in Trafalgar Square drinking a bottle of Pepsi Cola. She’s smiling cheekily at the camera. She’s the stand-in for a model on a Pepsi advertising shoot and the photo says she’s enjoying every minute of it – being in a place that she’s usually not allowed, a girl on the back of the po-faced Lion of British imperial tradition. Maybe that’s what future-vision is all about – finding new spaces to inhabit, new ways to live. Joan Crawford made it into the boardroom. Audrey Hepburn became a force for change in the world. My mother lived an unprecedented Holly Golightly freedom in swinging sixties London. The landscape of the twentieth century was remapped by a freeing up of gender orthodoxy. This was in the real world.

In the screen world the Pepsi dispensing machine didn’t make it into Kubrick’s vision of 2001 although Pepsi itself went from strength to strength into the twenty-first century. Kubrick got bored with the to and fro, the negotiations about the balance of aesthetic vision with branding that formed the discussions between Pepsi and his production team. This balancing act, though, is perennial. Pepsi recently had to retract an advertisement that stole the ‘image’ of the real-life bravery of Iesha Evans, a young African American woman who stood tall against a line of armoured police in a Black Lives Matter protest in 2016 only to be replaced with Kendall Jenner, a white reality TV star, offering a Pepsi to a willing officer in a line of armed police to quell the flashpoint of a staged riot. Reality and image could not be more muddled and revisionist in Pepsi’s re-make.

Holding Joan Crawford’s letter in my hand, the real world and the screen world are mixed up once again. In a time when 21st century America is shaken by the visible rise of the far right, with a President who asserts the absolutes of male and female in a cynical attempt to undo the pioneering visible reimagining of genders that has characterised the new century, and as the battles of the last century, the destruction of the old world and the optimistic rise of the new are being muddled and obscured, Kubrick’s questioning of what role branding plays in vision, is more relevant than ever. How much do we want the glamour of the screen to rub off on real life? How cautious should we be about glamourising the real world on the screen?