Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A "wild child" turns 50: Mackenzie Phillips' High on Arrival

A few weeks back there were three past-tense sex “scandals” that emerged in a short span of days: the David Letterman blackmail situation (which I couldn’t have cared less about, never having found Letterman to be a genuinely funny comedian or an engaging host); the Polanski case (which I wrote about here), and Mackenzie Phillips’ revelation of a long-term incestuous relationship with her father John, aka “Papa John” of the Mamas and Papas. I had wanted to write something about the last-mentioned story, but figured I should wait until I had had time to read her memoir, High on Arrival. In the meantime, mainstream media interest in her revelation has died down, which is just as well, since that enables us to better put her story in perspective.

First, a little bit about why I’m writing about Mackenzie. A few weeks I talked about the fan/celebrity connection when I wrote about the death of poet-rocker Jim Carroll. I should thus say that I’m a few years younger than she is, but I was totally infatuated with her when I was a kid (I use the word “infatuated” because I hated the term “crush” back then). Like every self-respecting couch potato, I watched every Norman Lear show that aired during the 1970s (and got to see them all jump the shark in a horrible fashion), and was totally taken with Mackenzie when she showed up as the rebellious older sister Julie on One Day at a Time.

To sort of put in perspective how “odd” it was that I found Mackenzie to be the cutest chick on TV, I should only remind those who remember that dim, dark time, that the leads on Charlie’s Angels were the most desired women on TV (jiggle on ABC!), Raquel Welch was still referred to with leering remarks on variety and talk shows, and, on One Day itself, Valerie Bertinelli was the “sweetheart” teen actress. Mackenzie describes herself quite accurately in her book as “gangly, with big teeth and a big smile, kinda goofy-looking,” and she’s not wrong. I believe I can make an argument that she was a very good actress whose career was sadly fucked up by her drug use, but that’s not the issue here — my infatuation with her was based entirely on the fact that she did not resemble an “Angel” and was not the wholesome Bertinelli type, and was in fact an awkward, winsome, troublemaking teen (and for those who think I’m being sleazy here, remember that was I was slightly younger than her when I had this infatuation, so shut up awreddy).

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that personal “connection” to her past out of the way, I can discuss her history of sharing her personal life with the public. I should note that, even while I was in the throes of my infatuation with her, I appreciated a Village Voice piece by James Wolcott about her appearance on The Dick Cavett Show on PBS with Papa John, when both were “drug-free” and happy to preach about sobriety, back around 1981. Wolcott’s pieces for the Voice are not available on the paper’s site at all, but his writing on TV was actually terrific (unlike Frank Rich’s film-reviewing for The New York Post, where he panned virtually every great movie of the mid-’70s). He spotlighted the fact that when John and Mackenzie spoke about their former drug use, they were showing signs of a particular show-biz affliction: talking about something tragic, and indicating that they possessed the money to make that particular high-priced tragedy occur.

As Mackenzie notes in her book, John often talked about how he shot up heroin *every single half-hour he was awake* when he was at his worst. Wolcott wisely discussed this in terms of an equation: talking about doing that many drugs means you clearly had that much money to buy the drugs! You can tell kids not to take them because they will wreck their lives, but you’re also talking to them about a level of luxury and wealth that permits that kind of beyond-indulgent drug use. Much as I was happy as a fan to see Mackenzie turning her life around back then, Wolcott’s piece struck home — John and she were indeed putting themselves on the world-class, let’s call it Keith Richards, level of junkiedom, rather than being akin to the average nodder on the corner. There was a kind of "status" to the tragedy. That sentiment is, happily, missing from Mackenzie's memoir.

Mackenzie’s history of drug use has always seemingly been linked with the fact that her father was an extreme addict, and she was brought up in an aura of unrestrained luxury and privilege. Still, her memoir seems like nothing less than an effort to free herself from Papa John’s nearly cult-leader charisma — no, NO, he wasn’t a Charlie Manson, but in reading her descriptions of him, he indeed sounds like a charming rogue who not only didn’t have boundaries, but was one for lying, stealing, and thoroughly manipulating all the women in his orbit.

The question that was brought up quite often when Mackenzie decided to discuss the incest on Oprah a few weeks back was “what does she stand to gain from this?” I know the answer is obvious — “better sales for the book, more public recognition,” or simply Michael O’Donoghue’s old dictum that on the daytime talk show circuit, “the one in the most pain wins!” As a fan of hers (I am still a fan in theory, although I admit to having lost the thread of her career, since I was a little too old to follow her stint as a cute rockstar mom in the Disney series So Weird), I realized that by coming out with this story, she was branding herself with a phrase that would become her “identity” in the media, that of “incest survivor.” The question of whether she was having “recovered memories” and had simply made the incest up also came up, but anyone who listened to her interviews or reads the book will realize that the story is indeed too sordid and sad to be anything someone would cook up as a “career move.” (Now, a sex tape or even a sex addiction — there, my friend, is a career move….)

It’s always been apparent to me that we human beings pine for the lovers and loved ones who abandon us the most. It’s a very sad trait, but one that none of us can avoid. Mackenzie’s story is exactly that: at one point in High on Arrival, she chronicles the many ways in which John physically and emotionally abandoned her, and later she talks about the incest, speaking of it as “consensual” — she also acknowledges that by having that connection with him, she finally had gotten him to stick with her, to not abandon her again. It was noted on various websites that addressed the issue that incest victims many times perceive the relationship to be consensual, when the parent is completely exploiting the power dynamic.

Mackenzie maintains that the sex began when she was blacked out from drugs, but continued with them meeting explicitly to get high and have sex. However, she was disgusted when he tried to make the act romantic. The nightmare Freudian implications of all this are indeed mind-boggling, and while she argues that she does not want the public to revile her dad for what he did, one can’t help but think that, while he was without question an immaculately talented tunesmith and might’ve in fact been incredibly charming in person, his “rules don’t apply” behavior was monstrous in its effect on his family.

The book’s third act, in which Mackenzie returns to drugs after having had a 15-year period of sobriety, does not have Papa John, but it still seems to have been triggered by his poor example as a parent. The relapse began after Mackenzie had a reckoning of sorts, “forgiving” John on his deathbed for his actions. She speaks of this as a sort of closure through the book, and yet it in fact seemed to open the door on a worse period of self-destructive behavior for her.

To put it in slick, book-reviewer terms, the first third or so of High on Arrival is filled with the “fun” gossip properties: major rock stars (Jagger, Donovan, McCartney); the glamour of Hollywood wealth; Mackenzie’s sudden and unexpected career as an actress, sparked by her being cast in American Graffiti. (In the picture on the right, she's the second-from-left glam kid outside Rodney Bingenheimer's L.A. club.) The rest of the book is a downward spiral, leavened only by the shorter space given to her sobriety (she notes that when she wasn’t using drugs, her life was happy and thus not interesting fodder for a memoir) and the birth of her son. Her drug-life included rape, kidnap, disfiguration of her body through shooting up and plastic surgery, and the concept of living under the same roof with one’s drug dealers.

Thus, High is Mackenzie’s story, but it also sketches a complex and disturbing portrait of John. His daughter is now at a place where she can talk about what they did sexually, but it seems that her hero-worship continues in certain regards, so one can only glean other things between the lines. Among them is the real fact that John was an oldies act after his first solo album fizzled — he had no hits, and aside from that album, seemingly no releases between ’68 when the Ms&Ps broke up, and the major Beach Boys comeback “Kokomo” (which he co-wrote) in ’88. When Mackenzie toured with John in the “New Mamas and Papas” in the early Eighties, she was in fact more recognizable and arguably more famous than he was, to me and millions of others like me who had watched her on TV; we knew of John simply as a gent who had written some great hits more than a decade earlier. In the punk and disco era, she was in, he was out.

Another odd anecdote that is quite disturbing in the book — Mackenzie being kidnapped while stoned at a club, and being freed several days later by John’s friend “Big Sal” — seems to bring up other connections that are never spelled out, but are intimated by the fact that John nearly served 45 years in prison for drug trafficking charges. Again, Wolcott’s money equation comes up. No doubt John was still making dough from the residuals off his old hits (“California Dreamin’” and “Monday Monday” have never stopped being played on oldies stations and in Muzak formats) and from his appearances on the oldies circuit, but how in the hell did he afford all those drugs? Mackenzie notes that the ’81 clean-up she and her dad went through was almost strictly a function of John needing to escape prison time for somehow (never discussed) trafficking drugs. I don’t wanna sound too, too Sixties here, but this is all some very heavy stuff the man was involved in.

As for the book itself, High on Arrival is compelling because, even though Mackenzie’s cowriter Hilary Liftin may have shaped the book’s prose, it is undoubtedly the product of its subject’s own reflection. The fact that Mackenzie is now equipped to confront her dad’s incestuous actions but still writes around his other character flaws attests for me to the book’s authenticity. Also giving this the feel of a non-ghostwritten autobio are other quirks, from little snide-swipes at certain folk (fellow performers, teachers) who don’t seem to figure in the grand scheme (who would not indulge in those if they had the opportunity to write their autobiography?), to major bragging (her sex-with-Mick-Jagger tale is a big-time brag, and I don’t think she’d deny that), to self-confessed “boring” tidbits of domesticity from the sober years, and remembrances of small details about beloved relatives, pets, and (yes, she is my age group) the tackiness of Seventies fashion.

The book ends with Mackenzie talking about how she is currently “free” from her demons. Seeing as how her two relapses from sobriety sparked the worst horror stories, one hopes she keeps on that straight edge and is able to keep moving along (oh god, no, not that phrase!) one day… no, I just won’t do it. She’s too cool, and the book is too serious, for that line as a closer.

And since this is a movie/TV/music blog with links to clips, here are select links. First, I point to a recent interview with Mackenzie where she talks about her drug use. The money factor comes in here. Here is another interview, where she does utter the straightforward phrase “he wasn’t a good man” about her dad.

And an odd clip that was posted after the recent revelations, featuring Mackenzie as part of the “New Mamas and Papas” with her dad. The song performed here is written by both John and Mackenzie, and has very striking (and openly strange) lyrics, in light of her memoir:

I always thought you’d take care of me
Till I found out that you’re just scared of me
They say that love will set you free
Well look at me, in penitentiary

Now to some happier stuff. As I researched this piece online, I found that Mackenzie turns 50 next weekend, and so here's to a happy birthday, with a little YouTube career retrospective. Here’s a YT specialty, a fan tribute-vid, with some flattering shots of Mackenzie throughout the years. Her acting debut, American Graffiti, is up in its entirety (copyright knows no bounds on YT!):

One of those goofy little “minisodes” they feature on YT finds “Julie Cooper” pondering losing her virginity on One Day at a Time. Mackenzie notes in her book her acting is overstated on the show, and they seemed to like it that way. You can see that here:

Watch her sing “Junk Food Junkie” (holy christ, the Seventies!) on the variety show called The Jacksons. And here’s a recent, sobriety-era interview with Donny and Marie. She also appeared on their original variety series, doing a godawful skit about a robot sister:

A clip from the 1976 Battle of the Network Stars (wow, again, the fucking Seventies!):

A clip from Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, a road-movie comedy starring Alan Arkin, Sally Kellerman, and Mackenzie:

One of the times when I fully felt she could’ve had a really good dramatic career, her turn as the “young Eleanor Roosevelt” in Eleanor and Franklin:

And, just to end on a more recent note, here is the best-sounding song from the Disney So Weird series, and the flashiest video:

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