Kathie Bleeker would be proud. You know Kathie Bleeker, right? She dreamed of open roads and wild, twisting rides by motorcycle – but unfortunately, even though Kathie is in one of the most influential films of the 1950s, most viewers overlook her.
They remember Johnny though – played by Marlon Brando in The Wild One – one of the bad boys who excited an entire generation, female and male, along with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. (And, let’s not forget, Elvis – but we’ll come back to him in a second.)
Johnny got thousands of movie viewers hankering for motorcycles and road trips. And Kathie’s desire for Johnny – well, plenty of girls in the audience shared that. Only, we tend to forget that Kathie wanted Johnny’s freedom and adventurous life, just as badly as she wanted Johnny.
In fact, when we think of motorcyclists on the open road, chances are, we’re still thinking of Brando… or Peter Fonda… or maybe those creepy guys from the first Billy Jack film. Maybe – just maybe – we think of Diane McBain as the psychopathic, well-coiffed stalker in the she-does-everything-but-boil-a-bunny exploiflick The Mini Skirt Mob.
We don’t think about sensible girls like Kathie, with brains and a work ethic, taking to the road and burning rubber. That may change once a documentary is finished about the “Girlz of Graceland,” a group of women from the Sol Sisters motorcycle club, planning a ride cross country:
On June 21st, 10 women from San Diego will be firing up their motorcycles to make a 15-day trip through 12 states. Our main destination is Graceland and we plan to arrive on 6/25/08 for a 2-day stay. We will have a documentary filmmaker along for the ride, as this trip is about so much more than just getting to Graceland. It’s about our journey as women, a celebration of why we ride, and an homage to the rebels of yesteryear who saw the open road as an escape, a challenge, and a friend. The documentary will be submitted to the Sundance Film Festival in October 2008 for their 2009 season.
When we reach Memphis, we’ll be stopping at Presley Place, a homeless shelter which is supported by Lisa Marie Presley and the Elvis Presley Foundation. While the dozens of parents at the shelter attend a Life Skills class, we’ll be babysitting their children – taking photos on the motorcycles, providing them with biker toys and leading a cooking class on “How to Make a Biker Meal.”
Now that – is cool. Man… I want to know how to make a biker meal! Eat your heart out, Anthony Bourdain!
And read through the biographies here – from Jett, whose passions include her work supervising a school bus fleet, and oh yeah – Elvis – to Anita, an environmental scientist who also tools around as a “garage artist”, and Biby, the “chaser”, a medical translator who hopes to educate people about Huntington’s Disease. Forget the old “motorcycle mama” stuff, it’s tired – some of these ladies, including Lilia, an old friend who awes me with her riding prowess, are in fact, mothers.
I’m sure there are a lot of real-life Kathies out there, whether they grew up in the fifties, or a little more recently – who are going to want to follow this wild ride, and maybe start one of their own.
With Richard Widmark’s passing at 93, and announcement of Charlton Heston’s recent death, we’ve lost two more silver screen legends.
As for Heston, one sad bit is that his recent fame (or infamy, depending on your views) working for the National Rifle Association, has overshadowed his legacy of early civil rights activism. And unfortunately, because of the close timing, we have already moved on from honoring Richard Widmark.
Born in Minnesota, Widmark got his start as an radio actor in New York and Chicago — first with a friend, then working steadily in shows like Gangbusters and Inner Sanctum. For him, the big gamble was to walk away after ten years of radio work, to even bigger potential in a little Hollywood film noir called Kiss of Death. While Don Ameche thrived after moving from radio to Hollywood, it hadn’t always worked out for other radio and stage stars: Les Tremayne had trouble finding equivalent success; and arguably the film world, post-Citizen Kane, was not so kind to Orson Welles. Well, the rest is history, with a string of excellent performances in movies like the unusual Panic in the Streets, Halls of Montezuma, Road House, Judgment at Nuremberg and The Bedford Incident.
While Widmark will probably be popularly remembered as a nasty hoodlum from Kiss of Death, in real life he was a stand up character. Sidney Poitier, his costar in No Way Out (1950) still notes Widmark’s warm hospitality and friendship in welcoming him to Hollywood. When they later costarred in Bedford Incident (1965), the ink that signed the federal Civil Rights Act into law was still wet on the paper, and Martin Luther King was now a household name encouraging interracial dialogue… but Poitier and Widmark were already old friends. Widmark was indeed a good egg.
Speaking of friendship, there’s another person of note who passed away recently, whose real life was as heroic and complex as any of Widmark’s greatest roles.
Dith Pran, the Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist from Cambodia, who helped tell of the “Killing Fields”, died last Sunday of pancreatic cancer at 65. Born near the historic and beautiful temples of Angkor Wat, Dith first trained as a translator, then began working closely with journalists, learning along the way to take photos. In 1972 he met Sidney Schaumberg, a journalist for the New York Times. They worked together for some time, even as the situation in Cambodia deteriorated, and became close friends. At one point Dith saved Schaumberg’s life by convincing soldiers not to shoot. When Phnom Penh, the capital, was overtaken by Khmer Rouge forces, Schaumberg was thrown out of the country, lucky to have survived in one piece. Other journalists, both Cambodian and foreign, were killed under the new regime.
Dith managed to survive the next four years as a virtual slave in the countryside, while Schaumberg agitated for his release and to get news out to the rest of the world of Cambodia’s misery. Under the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia had begun again at “Year Zero”, and between 1 and 2 million Cambodians – figures vary – died of genocide or starvation. Fifty of Dith’s relatives died during the genocide.
Miraculously, in 1979, Dith was able to escape to Thailand, then with Schaumberg and the New York Times’ help, he started a new life in the United States. His story was chronicled in the movie The Killing Fields.
To the last, with his new organization, and another one he was trying to build, Dith wanted people to know what had happened in Cambodia, and wanted the surviving members of the Khmer Rouge to be brought to justice.
The New York Times has put up a short video called “The Last Word” . It’s worth taking ten minutes out of your day to watch. Dith Pran was a true hero.