Comfort and Joi [Paperback]

ComfortA dissection of film theaters which are compared to airport terminals, general disillusionment with movie-going and how the magic is gone, musings on pop culture and lack thereof, the disappearance of our pop culture traditions that spawned a generation of well cultured masses.  All in one-hundred and thirty pages? How is that accomplished? In one utterly engrossing passage, Dougherty riffs on how directing and making a film, which was once such a demanding task, is now reduced to a mere mundane ability thanks to technology. Author Dougherty makes two things clear during this novel; that Joi was both an actress with great potential who never reached the upper echelons of Hollywood royalty she had the potential to reach due to circumstances that were both beyond her control and due to her own behavior, and she was very beautiful.

Dougherty’s descriptions of Lansing are often immensely detailed and describe her often with a sense of fawning that just seeps from the pages. The descriptions make it clear Lansing was gorgeous, with “rounded face and blonde hair not yet platinum” which is the description of her before she broke in to the business. He describes her as a pure beauty even during her childhood; and it’s not hard to learn why when looking at her pictures. Lansing is the archetype for the Hollywood starlet later to be embodied through kitschy figurines, the beautiful body, “bullet bra”, and gorgeous face, to which Dougherty speaks only well even when pointing out her negatives (Dougherty expresses utter anger at the prospect of Lansing’s romantic involvement with Frank Sinatra and the possibility that she was just another of his many conquests).

The fact that Dougherty is willing to commit a book to a very obscure relatively unknown to the masses actress speaks only well to his boldness and daring efforts to challenge himself. Even approaching this obscure actress is something Dougherty uses as a positive, yet again describing Lansing’s lack of success as a positive that kept her from being doomed to the same fates as Monroe, and Mansfield–or as he describes it– the “Blonde Curse”. In one brutally sharp biting quip he declares “She wasn’t so much of an actor as more a re-actor”. Dougherty’s extremely heartfelt and often inviting prose make “Comfort and Joi” a truly rare Hollywood satire that is both amusing and informative offering a new perspective on microscopic elements of film.

He even makes light of his infatuation with this unknown bit actor noting that his obsession with her was unexpected declaring–in the best line of the book–“Obsessions sneak up on you like snowdrifts”. In one passage, Dougherty examines the importance of extras within a film in a sort of “Rosencratz and Guildestein are Dead” scenario, posing the theory that perhaps each of them have their own stories, it’s maybe a hypotheses to either illuminate the mind by offering a sense of optimism, or an attempt to give further importance to a bit part of Lansing’s in “Singin’ in the Rain”.
Dougherty even makes the gross–albeit presumptuous praise–only a true admirer could make, to describe Lansing with lines such as “She couldn’t ruin a movie, she could only improve it, by smiling and leaning over”.

It’s the reflection upon the author showing that not only is he seeking to teach us about this obscure actress, but express his love for her to us. Though the narrative describes Lansing as a pure fighter, and survivor of the curse of the blondes, he never shies away from admitting to the reader that she had had work on her appearance to improve her looks which she assumed was the ultimate confliction against her lack of truly defining roles possibly unaware that her beauty and sheer presence was the reason for her inability to be seen as anything else but a dumb ditzy blonde. Lansing who died at only 44 from breast cancer, was an actress who appeared as an extra performed in bit parts, performing in her own show, and eventually acted in very low budget pictures, but Dougherty examines each and every bit of that work, which he admits is challenging. Yet, somehow he’s up for the challenge.

His friends Mark and David question why her? Why not someone like Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield, but he refuses because we know everything about them. What do you, I, we know about Joi Lansing? With often imaginative scenarios he ponders on for pages, Dougherty’s character brings himself closer to Lansing in his mind thinking about her with her friends and meeting at dinners, and it makes for a sense of intimacy the character shares with the audience. At a tight 129 pages, Dougherty gives us an engrossing story with writing that is both pleasant and breezy. Dougherty’s writing sucks you in and brings you to this time, and his prose is often so elegant yet sharp as a blade with lines so hard hitting it’s just so entertaining, such as his one description alluding jokingly that perhaps homosexual men were the perfect plan for man who make heterosexual men look like the rough draft, perfect men so well done that it would only take the same sex to satisfy them.

It’s just sharp lines like that that often made me break in to laughter. Though, one real caveat with “Comfort and Joi” is that Dougherty often meanders when he attempts to reminisce. As warm and pleasant as it may have been to recollect walking through his grandmother’s home and  describing every single detail of her making him his daily tuna fish sandwich–it doesn’t exactly translate well on the page as engrossing material. But much of that hardly diminishes what the content has to offer. After I had finished the book, something that felt all too short, I realized that the novel is less about an obscure actress, and more the requiem for pop culture (which becomes apparent in page 94, where Dougherty really provides heavy analyses, and interesting insight with immense zeal). It’s a man who is in love with an obscure starlet, but, the starlet is in the end a microcosm of something far more vast.

Dougherty riffs on pop culture throughout the book displaying gripes on constantly changing symbols and the fading of old culture that will be deemed irrelevant in the years to come. To some it may look like a baby boomer refusing to accept change, but in reality it’s expressing sadness for symbols that culture was built on, symbols that created this vacuous pop era, yet it’s just being given the boot. Deemed irrelevant. By profiling this actress in this love letter, he’s more profiling the pop culture of a simpler time that will come to obscurity. He gives us a view in to this pop culture world, because as he says “If he doesn’t, who will?” With “Comfort and Joi”, Dougherty gives a bit actor her spotlight, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in years. If you consider yourself a remotely educated film buff, you’ll read it too.