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Kings & queens
Wray, the Wall, and Wishman

I can’t recall how I copped her precious phone number, but there I was on the line with Fay Wray herself. I must be the only person not to inquire about her dangling in the hirsute paw of the mightiest of apes in King Kong, which screens this Friday and Saturday, March 21 and 22, at the Brattle Theatre in a new 35mm print made to celebrate the movie’s 70th birthday.

Instead we talked about being saddled by parents with rhyming names: Fay Wray, Gerry Peary. " You understand how it feels, " she snorted. " People always ask me if Fay Wray is really my name. " Wray was born in 1907; she was in her lively 80s when we conversed.

In 2003, she’s in her frisky mid 90s. Friends of mine needed her for an old-Hollywood documentary and got a production assistant named Richie to arrange it. The two chatted away on the telephone, and when the grande dame appeared on the set, she kept asking to meet Richie. He went over, a diminutive freckled guy in his early 20s. Wray looked him up and down, then turned away with disinterest. " Oh well, some day my prince will come! " she said.

For King Kong, the producers contemplated casting Jean Harlow but then decided that Wray, a veteran leading lady in her mid 20s (The Wedding March, The Four Feathers), would do if she donned a blond wig. She plays novice actress Ann Darrow, who’s plucked out of a Depression soup line to become the only dame aboard a ship bound for Skull Island. Her boat mates? Geeks in the realm of love, from misogynist Carl Denham ( " Do you think I want to haul a girl around? " ) to neutered Charlie the Chinese Cook to paralyzed-around-women Jack Driscoll.

Wray’s Ann is a castaway on a frigid frigate! What a contrast when Kong gets his hot mitt on her and her shirt rips and her randy body flips hither and thither: the damsel in distress as leggy, barefoot turn-on. King Kong is a scary movie and, just as key, a sexy movie, because of its torrid female lead.

I wish I’d told her in our phone talk: " Fay Wray, you are a babe! "

WE WHO ATTENDED the Berlin Film Festival in the 1980s would reserve one day for a visit to the East, venturing past a frightening maze of East German border officials and through the Wall into East Berlin. And if any of us had the slightest romantic idea of life in a Communist country, it disappeared after a few grim minutes of ghostly deserted streets, police everywhere, grocery stores with bruised apples and cabbages and nothing more, and a trip to the country’s snazziest department store, where the drab, pathetic wares were something you’d expect in the Third World. How could anyone reside in such a dreary police state?

Reside they did, and some people, more than we know about in the West, put up a heroic fight. That’s the message of Hava Kohav Beller’s stirring feature documentary The Burning Wall, which screens at the MFA March 26 and March 29. Although in the ’80s no Warsaw Pact country boasted tighter police security than the German Democratic Republic did under the Stasi, a few courageous individuals insisted on conducting their daily lives as if their country were actually democratic. The Burning Wall focuses on half-a-dozen leading East German dissidents — writers, actors, folk singers, ministers, college professors — and shows how their courageous acts spread until, in 1989, millions of East Germans took to the streets and brought about not just the dismantling of the Wall but the end of the GDR.

Beller’s coup as a filmmaker is that she got former Stasi agents to talk on camera about their spying and security activities. A dozen years later, these Stalinist true believers seem more shocked than repentant. One former Stasi officer shakes his head in disbelief: " This says that my 27 years dedicated to Communism mean nothing at all. "

OF ALL HER MANY FILMS, the late softcore filmmaker Doris Wishman was most proud of the 1978 Let Me Die a Woman, which screens this Saturday, March 22, at midnight at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Wishman, whose loony, low-low-budget flicks seem the works of a distaff Ed Wood, does here for transsexuals what Wood did for cross-dressers in his 1953 Glen or Glenda?

This is a sterling, compassionate ode to men trapped in women’s bodies and vice versa. You’ll learn far more about transsexual issues than you might want out of a night at the movies, thanks to a leaden psychiatrist and his endless didactic speeches, and the testimonials of pre-ops and post-ops. There are also gratuitous soft-sex scenes (Deep Throat’s Harry Reems stars in one of them), and jocular moments of high camp.

The money scene? A gross-out operation in which, on the big screen, you watch a bloodied penis and scrotum bite the dust and get replaced with a newly constructed vagina. Doris Wishman delivers!

Gerald Peary can be reached at


Issue Date: March 13 - 20, 2003
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