Above Sunset Boulevard With Gojira
By Rodger Jacobs
Darkness falls fast in the Hollywood Hills. While the rest of Los Angeles enjoys the faltering rays of the summer sun as it makes its slow bleeding descent into the Pacific, the rugged canyons and passes that were once inhabited by Native American warriors are plunged into something akin to an eclipse as fingers of darkness slither through the rambling thicket and around misshapen boulders to embrace the million dollar habitats of the movie colony.
I parked my car in the gravel driveway. Had Gojira’s personal assistant not provided me with explicit driving directions I would most surely have missed the turn-off from Laurel Canyon because the mouth of the road has been practically sealed shut by a dense hedgerow.
Years of neglect have taken their toll upon the three-story plantation-style mansion. There is a palpable scent of decay in the air, like fresh moss that clings to the base of a tree after a heavy rain. The first thing one notices is the startlingly life-like scarecrow that has been planted in the hard-baked soil not far from the empty swimming pool.
“I’m terrified of crows,” Gojira confessed to me in a rare unguarded moment during our two-hour interview. “As a child I experienced terrifying visions of flocks of giant crows plucking my mother and father and I off the sidewalk and carrying us off to a barren wasteland.”
Gojira’s terrifying childhood visions of predatory crows were no doubt exacerbated and perhaps informed by the two years that she and her Japanese immigrant parents spent at the infamous Manzanar detention camp north of Los Angeles during World War Two. Gojira would later draw on this experience to help shape the terror and moral indignation of one of the most famous movie monsters of all time.
The name Gojira is an amalgamation of the Japanese words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira). The Americanized version of Gojira’s name – a name she has always detested and rejected – is Godzilla. Contrary to popular belief, Gojira is charcoal gray, not green. She stands 164 feet tall but today there is a pronounced slump to her shoulders and the ravages of arthritis have left a decided limp to her once powerful stride. She is 69-years old, an aging movie queen trapped in her own indulgences, daydreaming about her youth in an effort to escape the fact that her glory days are long behind her.
In her decaying home high above Sunset Boulevard, Gojira agreed to speak to me with two solid conditions: no flash photography and no mention of her torrid, decade-long love affair with the late Japanese actor Ren Yamamoto, who played Masaji the Fisherman in the original 1954 “Godzilla”.
“It’s obvious that Ren touched her heart deeply,” says actress and novelist Carrie Fisher, one of Gojira’s few Hollywood friends who have stood by her during times of illness and economic uncertainty. “This was a romance on par with Tracy and Hepburn, Gable and Lombard, but she simply refuses to speak about it and she’ll scorch you with her radioactive breath if you even so much as try to approach the subject.”
With Miss Fisher’s warning ringing in my ears, I sat down with Gojira on the ivy-shrouded terrace of her Hollywood Hills manse.
RJ: There are a lot of conflicting stories about the inspiration for “Godzilla”. The only story that seems to hold weight is the fact that the nuclear scare of the Fifties –
GOJIRA: Hold on right there. The Japanese faced more than a mere “nuclear scare” or have you forgotten Nagaskai and Hiroshima? In 1953, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was planning a movie called “Eiko Kage-ni” (Behind the Glory) that had been inspired by a real-life nuclear accident in which a Japanese fishing boat ventured too close to an American nuke test and was contaminated. Well, as I said, Tanaka had to postpone that film so he took off on a vacation to Indonesia. One day he was looking down at the water in Indonesia, just having a silent and reflective moment, and he began imagining what was really below the surface of the ocean.
RJ: And Gojira was born.
GOJIRA: Gojira was born, yes.
RJ: There have been various reports for years about your behavior on the set of the 1964 film “Godzilla vs. Mothra” ---
GOJIRA: Yes, yes, yes. Let’s get one thing straight: Mothra and I did not get along for one simple reason. She came from the Method school of acting. She was Susan Strasberg’s room mate in New York in the 1950s –
RJ: Wasn’t Marilyn Monroe also Strasberg’s room mate?
GOJIRA: God, yes, and may the heavens help you if you ever got Mothra started on the subject. As far as she was concerned, Marilyn lucked out and didn’t have one-tenth of the acting chops that she (Mothra) had.
RJ: Do you think that’s true?
GOJIRA: It’s hard to provide an honest answer to your question. Method actors bury themselves inside facial tics and mumbling line readings and ambiguous body language. Is that acting? All I know is that a more naturalistic approach worked for me. Look at Billy Murray in “Lost in Translation”, a completely naturalistic performance and one the best I’ve seen in years.
RJ: Did you like “Lost in Translation”?
GOJIRA: Billy’s an old friend of mine and I’ve had Sofia up to the house for dinner once but when you break the film down it’s really less about Japanese culture and more about Los Angeles culture. All of the American characters are movie folk. So, what you really have is a fish out of water concept that works well on its own but offers little in terms of a glimpse into Japanese society.
RJ: What other contemporary films are you fond of?
GOJIRA: Well, let’s talk first about what I’m not fond of, and that’s the current crop of monster movies. I mean, “Predator vs. Alien”? What the hell is that? Did you know they asked me to make a cameo in the 1998 remake of “Godzilla” but I turned them down flat? I’m glad I did. The movie was shamefully bad.
In terms of current actors I’m awfully fond of Kevin Spacey but he creeps me out a bit.
RJ: How so?
GOJIRA: I think he has too much fun with the press with this whole “Is he gay?” and “Is he not gay?” thing. Frankly, I don’t care if he humps porcupines. The man’s talent is limitless and this emphasis on his sexuality – which he helps perpetuate – is just silly and I wish it would just cease and desist.
I recently saw “House of Sand and Fog” on DVD and thought Ben Kingsley’s performance was simply delicious. He’s reptilian, you know.
RJ: Ben Kingsley is reptilian?
GOJIRA: Look closely in his eyes, dear. I should know. Anjelina Jolie is reptilian, too, but I don’t want to get into that because that would involve telling tales about Jon Voight and Jon’s an old friend of mine, not to mention a sweetheart. All I can say is that a lot of us experimented with drugs in the 60s. If you’re going to drop acid in the desert make sure you have a human companion along when a craving for love comes along.
RJ: What other recent films have you admired?
GOJIRA: I saw a screening of the Robert Redford film “The Clearing” at the DGA not too long ago. That Willem Dafoe ---
GOJIRA (LAUGHS): What do you think, dear? The eyes. Look into the eyes.
RJ: Is there any truth to the rumor that you are being courted to star in a revival of the musical of “Sunset Boulevard”?
GOJIRA: Well, that would be typecasting, wouldn’t it? Look around this place: the empty swimming pools, the overgrown weeds, the crumbling exterior. Darling, I am Norma Desmond.
RJ: So you’re not denying the rumor?
GOJIRA: I’m 69 years old. I don’t have the voice I once had. There was a time I could melt electrical towers with my breath alone but those days are long gone. I’m no fool. I know what my limitations are. I just wish other actors did. I mean, I cannot believe that Jack Nicholson is still considered a romantic leading man. You have got to be kidding me. And Pacino is starting to resemble someone’s demented Sicilian grandfather.
RJ: Carrie Fisher is one of your closest friends.
GOJIRA: Yes, yes she is. A remarkable woman.
RJ: How did that come about?
GOJIRA: I’ve known Carrie since she was knee high. I recommended her to Hal Ashby for that small part in “Shampoo” and she just blossomed from there. You know, there are many Carrie Fishers: One: the daughter of two Hollywood legends. Two: Ingenue actress who stumbled, careened through a couple of bad marriages and substance abuse issues, only to emerge on the other side as a delightful novelist and screenwriter. I think she’s one of the best Hollywood success stories ever.
RJ: You sound envious.
GOJIRA: We all make our choices in life and some of us are blessed with more wisdom than others to aid in making the right choice. But I have no regrets. One thing I know is that after they shovel that last heap of dirt on my grave they will have buried an original. There is only one Gojira.
(c) 2004-05, Rodger Jacobs
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