Feb 9, 2023

TBT: Poetry Vs. Hollywood

One of the privileges of my theatergoing in L.A. back in the day was seeing talented actors like David Dukes do some of the best work of their careers in venues both big and small. I also got to interview him a few times, and he was as interesting to talk to as he was to watch (not always true of actors, honestly). Then he died suddenly, at the age I am now, and I got to know his widow, the poet Carol Muske-Dukes, who wrote a book of essays in part about her late husband and the world he occupied. This piece for the paper I ran then brings back fond memories. I hope you enjoy it as well.

Back Stage West

September 26, 2002

Marriage of True Minds

In her new collection, Carol Muske-Dukes remembers her husband's artistry—and wonders if Hollywood and poets can rhyme.

by Rob Kendt

David Dukes was really too good an actor for his own good—at least, he often seemed too smart and nervy and versatile for this town, which mints stars like collectible plates and keeps the rest of the talent pool in a state of anxious limbo, perpetually on call and on hold but never on retainer. One doesn't go into acting for the job security, of course but neither did Dukes, it's fair to assume, enter the business of show for the honor of credits in Slappy and the Stinkers or Snow Kill or the mercifully short-lived sitcom Pauly, or even for the dubious distinction of playing Edith Bunker's would-be rapist on All in the Family or the "icepick killer" in the Frank Sinatra vehicle The First Deadly Sin.

Giving a kitschy nod to the vagaries of her late husband's career, the poet Carol Muske-Dukes titles her new collection of essays Married to the Icepick Killer: A Poet in Hollywood (Random House, 2002, $23.95). Most were written and published in periodicals before Dukes died suddenly of a heart attack in fall 2000, at the age of 55, on the set of the miniseries Rose Red.

Theatrical Flair

If the tone of Muske-Dukes' diverse, diverting essays is not exactly elegiac, it is nevertheless a book shaded—one hesitates to say haunted—by a great absence, by the inverse of an actor's stage presence. This is at least partly because among Muske-Dukes' central subjects is the alienated, atomized cultural landscape of this spread-out, seemingly history-less industry town—a place where the popular images of the culture are created, while alternative images speak uncertainly, if at all, in the margins, at poetry readings and open mics, in tiny storefront theatres, in academe, on the pages of fringe newspapers, in countless boutiques and salons and workshops where self-selecting cliques and klatsches of people gather to blow off the creative steam not used or wanted by the entertainment industry.

"Nothing that happens in Hollywood is only local," Muske-Dukes writes in her opening essay. "Its power to influence the world is a vast yet intimate power. And Poetry (powerless but universal) operates similarly. Poets are servants of the commonplace and arcane force which is the Imagination—they know it is possible to be anyone or anything." Elsewhere, in an essay titled "Frenzied Nirvana: Behind the Scenes of a Poem," she deftly tackles the differences in the media of film and poetry—one as enveloping as a shared collective dream, the other the springboard for subjective, uncharted flights of imagination.

What comes through clearly, and touchingly, throughout is that David shared that poet's sense of possibility. His epitaph is Bottom's "Let me play the lion too” speech from A Midsummer Night's Dream—the credo, indeed, of every character actor, even the ones trapped, like Dukes, in a leading man's form.

"David was always more at home in creating himself in these self-filled inventions than he was—I don't want to say all the time—in the real world," said Muske-Dukes in a recent interview. "I think it was hard for him to walk in the world, in a sense, without a role. He wasn't at all a showy man, he was modest in a way—but he had a certain flair that was theatrical in almost everything that he did."

The theatre, finally, is where Dukes did his definitive work, from his early days at American Conservatory Theater to M. Butterfly and Bent on Broadway, as well as in the L.A. stage credits he assayed between lucrative film gigs: Lucio in Measure for Measure at the Ahmanson Theatre, and, perhaps most memorably for its intimacy and power, his pained Vladimir in Waiting for Godot at the Matrix Theatre. As Muske-Dukes admitted, he was never entirely at ease on film.

“There's always that question about what it takes to be a great film actor, and there's a kind of static quality to certain film performers, an aura, that can be really powerful," she said. Dukes, on the other hand, had a certain restlessness, an edge, which onstage he harnessed into heartrending or hilarious portraits of awkwardly soulful men but which on film got him typecast as prigs and psychos. Still, citing a eulogy by the English director Sir Peter Hall, who directed Dukes in Measure for Measure, Muske-Dukes said, "He had great work ahead of him, not just onstage but on film, but he hadn't figured that out yet.”

Student and Teacher

Though it contains a trio of essays specifically about her late actor husband, including the title essay—a sharp, tender piece she wrote for The New York Times magazine about being married to an actor's rootless, odd-jobbing insecurity—this is not just a book about an actor's widow. Muske-Dukes is a preeminent American poet and the director of the graduate program in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California, where she witnesses firsthand the struggles of young poets and writers to make a place for themselves in a culture that seems to have more aspiring writers than readers. She surveys the fraught relationship between celebrity and creativity, between the power of mass communication and the potency of the individual artistic vision, with an eye that is neither breathless nor jaundiced, that has both the student's openness and the professor's wisdom.

She whimsically imagines reviews of great poets in history if they had been

"performance poets"; she recounts Hollywood's attempt to employ her poetry for a voiceover narration in the submarine film U-571; she contrasts a visit to the Clinton White House to honor American poets (one of the former President's many outsized passions) with a visit to a veritable orgy of Clinton bashers, including her old friend Christopher Hitchens, hosted by self-made pundit Arianna Huffington; she muses on guest-teaching poetry to West Point cadets.

It's only after reading the whole book, with its coda about the inseparable beauty and terror of Los Angeles, that we realize how refreshing and rare it is to read a book of literate, New Yorker-style essays that aren't by a New Yorker but instead, like the work of Sandra Tsing Loh or Tom Waits, emanate from a distinctly Left Coast sensibility.

Muske-Dukes also writes bemusedly about the true Southern California obsession, real estate, from her house in the historic Hancock Park neighborhood, a former bastion of WASP purity (i.e., restrictive housing codes designed to keep out African-Americans and Jews).

Little Murmurs

One doesn't have to look far in that well-appointed two-story home for traces—photos, programs, awards, clippings—of the great actor who lived there (when he lived there). Muske-Dukes recalls his presence and their "powerful" relationship ("We gave each other a lot of trouble," she said, but "there was a lot of passion") in fond particulars.

"I remember David sitting about here," said Muske-Dukes, looking around the house with clear eyes. "And I would just hear a little murmur as he was going over his lines, like you hear someone praying under their breath. It was like there were voices in the house—like the water was running somewhere. I saw what he did, and I understand what he was doing—he was making those words live in a whole new way. 

There may be no sweeter picture of married contentment in a household containing two outsized creative talents than that: David running lines with his portable mini-cassette recorder while Carol labored to compose a new stanza over her writing desk.

Married to the Icepick Killer is as fine a celebration of the stubborn persistence of the artist's temperament in a media age as you're likely to find.


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