Tuesday, January 22, 2008

An American Story, Dept.

joey h

By art or nature, by choice or force, Joey Heatherton was a Sex Kitten.

Most memories of her that are still clattering around boomer brainboxes involve a mini-dress, go-go boots, and blonde hair flailing wildly in the energetic execution of any of the dances popular in the days of "discotheques". Here, for example, we see a typical dance number from Ms. Heatherton. She is demonstrating to the audience "The Hullabaloo" on the show of the same name. In the course of her performance, she appears, both in her jerking, thrusting movements and in her facial expressions, to be in the throes of a particularly-intense orgasm. This, I believe, was part of her appeal to a generation of youngsters who had heard a great deal about this thing Sex, but had no personal experience of its appearance or nature. This, I believe, was also part of her appeal to a generation of middle-aged men who knew something of Sex, but nothing of it in connection with a lithe, limber, smoldering blonde Kitten who apparently was Hurting For It, and rather badly at that.

Joey Heatherton had the misfortune of coming to prominence at the end of the era of musicals and near the end of the era of television variety shows, the only two large-scale media venues where a traditional singer/dancer such as herself could ply her trade. The type of music she performed was too "square" by half for the hippies and flower children who had elbowed aside the discotheque bourgeoisie dipping their toes in the pool of Different. The cover of her first and only LP, 1972's The Joey Heatherton Album, finds her in a funky denim shirt and beads, but the songs are a mix of country ("Crazy", "Gone"), pop ("God Only Knows"), gospel ("Shake-A-Hand"), and standards ("Someone To Watch Over Me"). The album photographs are taken by Harry Langdon, Jr., a son of Hollywood (his father was silent film comedian Harry Langdon) just as she was one of Broadway's daughters (her father was theater, radio, and television veteran Ray Heatherton). Langdon and she would work together again in the print half of the ad campaign that sealed her Kitten fate: Serta Perfect Sleeper Mattresses. One of the television spots, with JH in a revealing pink bellbottom'd jumpsuit, is available here, and a two-part mini-documentary about the Making Of these ads is here, then here. The second installment ends with a second TV spot, this one featuring her in a long white négligée, in which she talks about how "firmness and comfort" are the keys to a great night's sleep. This said as her plunging neckline displays the firmness and comfort of her breasts.

And that's what it came down to: Joey Heatherton as eminently-fuckable celebrity. She shimmies and jerks and grinds and works the mattress-top. She stretches and lolls and undulates and works the mattress-top. Hellcat or pussycat. Which one'll it be, buddy?

Which, as in most such cases, was a shame. She had a good voice and could sell a song strong or subtle. She was an energetic dancer who was straitjacketed into one style. She was, by most accounts, a decent actress; reportedly Stanley Kubrick's first choice to play Lolita. But she became a fixture on the Bob Hope USO shows. Whether she did this out of patriotism or out of a desire to be desired by tens of thousands of horny young men is unknowable. Whatever her motivation, she wore the Kitten role for twelve years before many, many uniforms and even more viewers at home.

Two more clips for you. This is an early appearance on The Dean Martin Show, a show she would later co-host in its summer-replacement incarnation. This, a comedy version of "I Get A Kick Out Of You" featuring some classic Paul Lynde muggery. She finishes the first chorus ("I get no kick from champagne"), jumps to the bridge ("I get a kick every time I see you"), then back for a mangled third chorus, avoiding the troublesome second chorus ("Some get a kick from cocaine"). She, unfortunately, was unable to do so in real life, and thence at least part of the story of her decline.

So, Sex Kitten emerita it is. And with the passage of time, memory elides the scandals and the suffering, and showcases the girl who brought Abandon into Middle America's living rooms.

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