Phil Noir: Avenue of the Scars

WELL, SHUT MY MOUTH. Here we were all wondering if Linda Kenney Baden would have to pack away her white shoes after Labor Day or if Bruce Cutler might turn out to be Mr. September in his closing argument — when suddenly Phil Spector’s defense rested weeks ahead of schedule. It’s turned out to be a fitful rest, however, for like everything else in this cockamamie trial, the defense’s close hasn’t really been a close. Team Spector announced it would end its case by noon Wednesday, but couldn’t pull it off. For one thing, star forensics witness Dr. Henry Lee was in China and, it turned out, Spector’s attorneys couldn’t produce two other concluding witnesses.

So instead, Judge Larry Paul Fidler had the prosecutors put on their first rebuttal witnesses — keeping the defense’s case cryogenically frozen. Stranger still, the testimony of the D.A.’s second rebuttal witness was put on hold midtestimony so that prosecutors could fit in another rebuttal witness who was about to leave the country. By the time this trial ends, it won’t surprise anyone if Fidler has the prosecution begin its closing arguments while Dr. Lee’s taxi speeds to the courthouse from LAX.

More brush strokes were added this week to the courtroom portrait of Lana Clarkson. Somewhat like Gene Tierney’s absent character in the noirish movie Laura, Lana is an enigmatic woman defined by the words of others. But no two people can agree about who Clarkson was — her “best friends” give clashing opinions about her, and even the two paramedics who treated her for a slip-and-fall accident offered diametrically opposed perceptions of her sobriety. By their conflicting descriptions, those who knew or merely met Clarkson are inadvertently cataloging the ways in which they failed her, while also describing the city of cruel promises in which she hopelessly struggled to reinvent herself from a sometime actress to a comedian. As Julie Kirgo wrote of Laura in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style: “Laura posits a world in which everyone is implicated, in which everyone not only has a motive for, but is seemingly capable of, committing a heinous crime.”

The week’s most dubious highlight came when the defense played Lana Unleashed, Clarkson’s portfolio video designed to showcase her comedic talents. Prosecutors Alan Jackson and Pat Dixon begged Fidler to block the screening, but the judge ignored their pleas. The video quickly made clear why Clarkson did not have her own Comedy Central show. Her self-written sketches, intended to demonstrate Clarkson’s range of characterizations and dialects, appeared desperately unfunny on the courtroom screen. She was dying up there — all over again.

It also became obvious why Spector’s lawyers fought to have the video shown. In one segment, Clarkson performs a blackface impersonation of singer Little Richard selling a line of African-American cosmetics on TV. The sketch was nothing more than a coon show and seemed to drag on for hours as reporters kept an eye on the jury’s three black members, who watched with frozen expressions. (“Little Richard”?’s cosmetic kit — called “Makeup Kit for Dummies” — included minibar bottles of liquor and plastic pieces of a black man’s face.)

Getting Lana Unleashed shown in open court was a stroke of sadistic genius on the part of attorney Roger Rosen, who, after winning Fidler’s approval to play the video, smiled that satisfied Rosen smile we’ve all come to know, as though he’d just dropped the dime on Anne Frank. Reviews of Rosen’s gambit, though, were mixed — Clarkson’s sister Fawn wept through the entire viewing.

AGAIN AND AGAIN one is struck by the level of self-delusion and manic optimism expressed about Hollywood and life in general — not only by Clarkson but by everyone in her world. The belief of Clarkson’s friends and associates, articulated in three and a half months of testimony, is a thoroughly Southern California credo that equates talent with self-esteem, eating right, exercising and becoming spiritual.

Clarkson completely believed she belonged to Hollywood’s creative community even as dark resentments made her feel that it was only fate that had let her somehow fall through the cracks of recognition. What is the difference, she might have wondered in the dead of night, between her and Lisa Kudrow? To her, it was all in the timing, in the alignment of stars both real and figurative. In some ways she was right, given the endless Schwab’s Drugstore stories of stars having been discovered not through the telescopes of talent agents, but by chance encounters with Industry machers. No wonder Clarkson hoped her last job, as a hostess at House of Blues, would pay off.

Her only A-list encounter would be with a drunk and randy Phil Spector on the night of her death, and the only casts she appeared in were the plaster ones imprisoning her wrists, which she shattered at a 2001 Christmas Eve party. After the wrists healed and the emotional scars that had built up around her romantic and professional setbacks were powdered over, Clarkson begged and borrowed money to cover rent and groceries, spending her last loaned dollar to shoot Lana Unleashed. And then she put a smile on her face and dove, once more, into the rip tides of Hollywood.

Nick Terzian, a prosecution rebuttal witness who was Clarkson’s agent of 11 years, exuded this same malarial optimism.

“Lana,” Terzian said, “was a beautiful, outgoing comedic actress.”

Once Clarkson’s casts came off, Terzian said, “She was thrilled to be back in the game.” A photo was shown of Clarkson auditioning for an ad spoofing the TV show Dynasty. Clarkson stares out at the camera with a smile bravely stenciled across her face, a yellow Post-it stuck to her body identifying her as auditioner “#161.” Under Rosen’s brutal cross-examination, Terzian admitted that Clarkson was not considered an A-list talent and, in the last year of her life, had only earned $1,500 — before Terzian took his 20 percent cut.

SPECTOR ATTORNEY BRAD BRUNON was game enough to try one more defense ploy of linking Clarkson to Jody “Babydol” Gibson, the flamboyant former Hollywood madam whose little black book purportedly contains Clarkson’s name. But his stunt met a hail of objections from prosecutors and Fidler himself. The Gibson Girl was one of several defense witnesses whom the judge struck from testifying, but it’s unclear if Spector’s lawyers have finally given up working the convicted pimp into the trial.

To counter the defense’s best-friend witness testimony that the judge did allow — especially Jennifer Hayes-Riedl and Punkin Pie Laughlin’s account of a gloomy, depressed and could-maybe-kill-herself Clarkson — rebuttal witness Nili Hudson was brought in. She said she had been a best friend of Clarkson’s since 1981. According to Hudson, Clarkson was mostly sober, full of life, eating right, exercising, etc. Brunon countered with the familiar photos of Clarkson partying with watery-eyed people accessorized with cowboy hats, leather jackets and cocktail glasses.

Brunon allowed the chatty realtor, whose animated answers often strayed far beyond his questions, to downplay the role of Punkin Pie and Hayes-Riedl, and to talk up Clarkson’s comedic skills (“amazing,” “astounding”). Then Brunon nonchalantly asked if Hudson had followed the trial. Hudson at first said not really — only “a couple of hours” of Pie’s testimony and somewhat less of Hayes-Riedl’s. Hudson said she TiVo’d the rest of the trial, but didn’t watch any of the defense’s presentations because Spector was “absolutely guilty.”

Throughout her testimony, Hudson stuck to her recollection of Lana being completely upbeat to the very end, buoyed by her new $9-an-hour House of Blues job.

“I’ve got some serious red carpets I’ve got to walk down!” Clarkson was quoted as telling her — never dreaming that the only red carpet awaiting her was the one in Phil Spector’s foyer.

To see Lana Unleashed, go to www.courttv.com/trials/spector/080207_ctv.html.

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