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Kitty Cornered

by Carol Cooper

All By Myself: A musical portrait of Eartha Kitt.
Produced and directed by Christian Blackwood.
Released by Blackwood Productions Inc.
At Film Forum 1, (57 Watts Street. 431-1590.)
May 4-17
The camera has never been invited to witness Greta Garbo's isolate, genteel decline; and when Marlene Dietrich reappeared a while ago in Just a Gigolo, long time fans were mildly appalled: was this the woman who'd immortalized "Hot Voodoo" in Blonde Venus? Similarly, people with fond memories of Eartha Kitt in St. Louis Blues (1958) or Anna Lucasta (1959) may be of two minds about Christian Blackwood's biographical documentary, All by Myself. It is, by anyone's reckoning, a strange film; part Grey Gardens intrusion and part Grand Guignol illusion.

Blackwood dutifully follows Kitt through vastly different environments, the only unifying feature being the actress's camp gestures and histrionic monologues. Because she clearly belongs to none of the worlds captured on camera, we are meant to find this constant displacement tragic. But without a proper script, the film contains too many narrative gaps to manipulate our sentiments so easily. Although we accompany Kitt on a bitter pilgrimage to her native South Carolina (the illegitimate child of an unknown -- white? -- man, she was first abandoned then orphaned by her mother), we learn nothing of her transitional, and certainly formative, years in New York, What about her stint as a Katherine Dunham dancer? Her nightclub act in Paris? Her successful Broadway debut in New Faces of 1952? None of the several films Kitt made in Hollywood, including a legendary version of New Faces are ever mentioned or excerpted. Instead we get rambling fragments of a contentious, egocentric personality.

As Kitt's entourage is on its way to Reagan's inaugural ball, the story is told of that infamous White House luncheon with LadyBird when La Kitt publicly denounced the Vietnam war as racist and immoral -- and was surreptitiously blacklisted for her trouble. She wonders aloud in the crowded limo if the current inaugural invite is meant as some sort of reconciliation. The program she chose to perform that night -- "Degradation," "I Want to Be Evil," and "C'est Si Bon" -- suggests that La Kitt was not ready to be reconciled.

Subsequent snatches of footage interspersed between disjointed performance, interview, and establishing shots hint at a more intriguing movie left unmade: repeated scenes of the ritualized application of heavy makeup and thick black lashes before every "official" appearance; close-ups of Kitt's beloved ash-blonde daughter; a gorgeous home in Beverly Hills where Eartha can farm, rehearse, and butter about the kitchen in a marvelously self-deflating bullfrog T-shirt. At home she is shown with hair pulled into a severe bun, her mottled yellow and brown complexion revealing age and determination. Kitt's face commands surprisingly African features and a beauty that, like the rest of her, obeys no standard but her own.

In spite of its structural flaws, All by Myself does manage one bit of inspired juxtaposition. When Eartha Kitt headlines a benefit commemorating the Atlanta murders at Harlem World (one of Manhattan's premiere rap and disco venues), Blackwood catches the unmistakable parallel between Kitt's timeless cabaret vamp and the rapping deejay's "cash mon-ee" bravado. During their all too brief turns before the lens, break dancers and Lovebug Starski celebrate pride, sex and money with the same hot/cool aplomb as does Kitt when she purrs and slurs her way through "Champagne Taste and a Beer Bottle Pocket."

Yet All by Myself fails as cinema verité because its director feigned objectivity when all the while he was working under an obvious preconception. Determined to portray Kitt as Tragic Heroine whether the facts bear him out or no, Blackwood deprives this documentary of his subject's accumulated triumphs to portray a life whose overall calm, comfort, and orderliness is supposed to seem tortured and empty. The Eartha Kitt in this picture is not an exotic bird in a gilded cage but a fly in amber; and this stasis that seems to surround a woman still vibrant and productive is not tragic but pitiful. And Eartha should be the first to demand something better than that.

Published in: Village Voice, May, 1983