Willa: Last June our friend and frequent contributor Eleanor Bowman visited Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where Michael Jackson is interred. I had never thought much about it before – I guess I just assumed it was a nice cemetery where a lot of Hollywood stars were buried – but Eleanor explained that it was much more than that. For example, she said the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn is filled with life-size reproductions of Michelangelo’s statues, carved in marble like the originals.
Eleanor’s emails sparked my curiosity, so I started doing some research and learned that Forest Lawn was modelled on a very different vision of what a cemetery could be – as a joyful public place where people could experience great works of art, reconnect with nature, and celebrate the lives of their loved ones. In fact, it helped change popular ideas about cemeteries. As founder Hubert Eaton wrote in 1917, “I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as Eternal Life is unlike death.”
So this year, as we approach the seventh anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, we would like to talk about Forest Lawn, about Dr. Eaton’s vision and how it relates to Michael Jackson’s ideas about art, and whether Forest Lawn is an appropriate final resting place for him. Eleanor, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!
Lisha: Wow, this sounds like a fascinating topic. I had no idea Forest Lawn had such an unusual history. Eleanor, thank you so much for joining us. I’m anxious to learn more.
Eleanor: Hi, Willa and Lisha. And thanks for the invitation to again talk about my favorite person.
Last year, I was visiting my son, Shaw, in LA and realized it was close to the anniversary of Michael’s death, and I wanted to do something, to somehow feel closer, to honor him. And my son, who a couple of years ago had humored me by driving me by the gates to the original Jackson compound on Hayvenhurst, entered into the spirit of things and spent the whole day taking me to places associated with Michael.
Willa: Oh really? So you and your son took your own private Michael Jackson tour?
Eleanor: Yes, we did. And it was a wonderful day!
Willa: That sounds really fun! There are professional Michael Jackson tours costing hundreds of dollars, but doing your own tour sounds much better.
Lisha: I agree. Ever since I saw this YouTube video called the “Ultimate Michael Jackson Fan Tour (Red in L.A.),” I’ve wanted to do some DIY Michael Jackson tourism myself:
Willa: I love that video, Lisha. And how wonderful that you were able to do some “DIY Michael Jackson tourism” with your son, Eleanor! Where all did you go?
Eleanor: First we went to Holmby Hills (Holmby Hills is adjacent to Beverly Hills) to see the house he was living in when he was preparing for This Is It. It occupies an entire block, sitting on a steep, pie-shaped piece of land with the house at the top, backing up to the narrow end, and the front looking out over terraced gardens and beyond that over LA. The double garage opens right onto the street and the garage door was open, and I could imagine MJ coming and going from his house. The neighborhood is so beautiful and tranquil, curving narrow streets lined with lovely trees and flowering plants. So green and quiet.
Next we went into Hollywood and I found his star in the sidewalk. That evening we went to La Cabanita, a Mexican restaurant in Glendale which was one of Liz Taylor’s favorites, and we could imagine MJ and Liz having dinner together. (The food was wonderful!)
But the best and most moving part of the day for me was the visit to Forest Lawn. Very quiet. Rolling hills, mostly, with graves flush with the ground. Except, of course, for the huge mausoleum where the rich and famous, including MJ, are entombed – a sort of cathedral for the dead. Elizabeth Taylor’s crypt has beautiful sprays of white orchids on either side of a huge marble block with her name. On top was an enormous statue of an angel.
Eleanor: The building is a real cultural experience. I have never seen anything like it. Copies of Michelangelo’s sculptures everywhere, as you mentioned, Willa. Full size. And a huge stained-glass window that is a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Really over the top, but still … fitting, I think, for these people who in some way represent our cultural archetypes.
I told Shaw I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One and Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, both cultural critiques of the US, both inspired by Forest Lawn, and representing all I knew about Forest Lawn. I mean, Forest Lawn is a cultural icon all by itself, if a cemetery can be an icon.
Willa: I know what you mean, Eleanor. It really changed the look of cemeteries across the nation. I didn’t realize how significant it was until you told me about it and I started doing a little research. In fact, I knew very little about Forest Lawn. But after you piqued my interest I visited California and went to Forest Lawn – something I probably wouldn’t have done without your encouragement – and I was surprised by how beautiful it is. It feels like a park. In fact, it’s a popular place for weddings, which is pretty uncommon for a cemetery …
Lisha: Weddings? You can’t be serious! I can’t think of anything more antithetical to a cemetery than a wedding ceremony!
Willa: I was shocked when I read that too, so I asked David Macdonald about it. The Forest Lawn company actually has six separate cemeteries – or memorial parks, as they call them – and Mr. Macdonald is in charge of the original Glendale facility, where Michael Jackson is. Toni Bowers and I visited California last November, and before our trip we contacted Mr. Macdonald. He very kindly took us on a tour, and while we were walking around I asked him if it was true that Ronald Reagan was married there. He said yes, that thousands of people have been married there, and it’s still a popular place for weddings. In fact, he said he himself was married there. I was really surprised by all the weddings. That wasn’t at all what I expected at a cemetery.
Lisha: That is so cool you also got to visit! And that is just so surprising about the weddings – I just can’t picture it.
I google-searched and found this photo of Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman’s 1940 wedding, which was held in the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather, a church at Forest Lawn:
The newlyweds are sitting in the church’s “Wishing Chair,” a stone monument that says, in part, “good fortune will forever smile upon the bride and bridegroom who sit in this chair on their wedding day.” Forest Lawn’s wedding coordinator, Mildred Broking, told the Los Angeles Times that, “In the ’40s, if a couple wasn’t married in the Wee Kirk, they just weren’t married.… It was the elite place to be married.”
Never in a million years would I have guessed that a cemetery church would become “the elite place” for a wedding!
Eleanor: I wouldn’t either, Lisha, and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable with the idea.
Willa: It’s certainly unexpected, isn’t it? But in a way it’s a testament to the success of Dr. Eaton’s vision. He didn’t think a cemetery should be a mournful place, but a place of celebration. In fact, Mr. Macdonald said that before Disneyland was built, Forest Lawn was the most popular tourist attraction in Los Angeles, and it still attracts a lot of visitors – though not nearly as many as Disneyland, of course. It’s just hard to imagine a cemetery being such a popular place to visit.
Lisha: That’s really something. It sounds like Dr. Eaton really wanted to challenge the way people were accustomed to thinking about death.
Willa: Yes, I think so too.
Lisha: I know the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris also attracts lots of tourists, but I thought that was because of their famous “residents” like Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Édith Piaf, and Frédéric Chopin. Visitors enjoy finding the graves of the historical figures who are buried there.
Willa: And that’s true of Forest Lawn as well. It’s amazing how many famous people from many different spheres have been laid to rest there, including actors, musicians, athletes, and politicians. There’s Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Gracie Allen and George Burns, Mary Pickford, Ethel Waters, Sammy Davis Jr, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Red Skelton, Casey Stengel – even Dr. Suess. Here’s a list of over 1,000 famous people buried there.
Eleanor: Thanks, Willa. Pretty comprehensive.
Willa: It’s a long list, isn’t it? But I think there’s something else at Forest Lawn that accounts for all the visitors and the wedding ceremonies. Dr. Eaton envisioned it as a place for the living as well as the dead.
Legend has it that on New Year’s Day of 1917 he was walking the hills at Forest Lawn and suddenly had a vision of what it could be. He came home and wrote what came to be known as “The Builder’s Creed.” It has since been carved in stone on a wall near the entrance to the Great Mausoleum. Here are some of his words:
I believe in a happy eternal life. …
I therefore know the cemeteries of today are wrong because they depict an end, rather than a beginning. …
I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as Eternal Life is unlike death. …
Forest Lawn shall become a place where lovers new and old shall love to stroll and watch the sunset’s glow, planning for the future or reminiscing of the past; a place where artists study and sketch; where school teachers bring happy children to see the things they read of in books …
So Dr. Eaton actually envisioned Forest Lawn as a place for lovers! In that sense – that it’s a place where lovers stroll, artists sketch, and schoolchildren visit on field trips to see great works of art – it’s very different from most cemeteries.
Lisha: That is such a radical concept – for the end of life to be celebrated as a new beginning, which is how we usually think of weddings, not funerals. It turns the concept of a burial into a celebration of life and love, rather than the ultimate tragic end.
Willa: I think you’re right, Lisha.
Lisha: The Forest Lawn website has an interesting story about the very first statue Dr. Eaton purchased for the cemetery, back in 1915, known as Duck Baby. The idea of placing art in a cemetery was so foreign at that time, the purchase created some controversy and was initially rejected by the company’s board of directors. Duck Baby depicts a smiling child, full of life, holding baby ducks in its arms. Installing a beautiful statue like this was such a different way of thinking about burials, many had a hard time envisioning the concept.
Eleanor: Yes, it is very different. And not everyone has shared or admired Eaton’s vision. Especially not early on. Forest Lawn has had quite a history and has aroused a lot of controversy, often seen as an example of American commercialism and bad taste. Jessica Mitford used it as an example of what not to do. And Evelyn Waugh used it to satirize American life.
Since my only association with Forest Lawn was through those two books, I had some reservations, myself, about it as a proper burial place for Michael Jackson. But, of course, he isn’t really buried, but entombed. For one thing, it seemed almost sacrilegious to me for him to be entombed anywhere. He seemed to feel himself so much a part of nature, it seemed against everything he believed in to separate his body from his beloved Planet Earth. Cremation seemed more appropriate.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Eleanor. I mean, Michael Jackson basically wrote a love letter to nature in “Planet Earth,” where he said,
In my veins I’ve felt the mystery
Of corridors of time, books of history
Life songs of ages throbbing in my blood
Have danced the rhythm of the tide and flood
Your misty clouds, your electric storm
Were turbulent tempests in my own form
It’s hard to believe the person who wrote those words would want his body to be kept separate from nature and the cycle of life – shut away inside a metal box which was then placed inside a stone box. But I also see how his family and fans would want a place to remember him and memorialize his life.
Eleanor: Yes, I agree. On the one hand, he seemed to feel so in tune with nature, so much a part of it. I like to think of his art as an expression of nature, flowing through his body in his dance. His voice singing nature’s songs.
However, I did a reality check and, although I think cremation would have been more suitable, he was, after all, Michael Jackson and that just wasn’t going to happen. So, on second thought, I decided that there couldn’t be any more appropriate place than Forest Lawn for the King of Pop.
Willa: It’s interesting you should say that, Eleanor, because one of the things I learned at Forest Lawn is that an early definition of “mausoleum” is “a burial place for kings.” So it’s appropriate, as you say, that the King of Pop should be laid to rest there.
Eleanor: I didn’t know that! So, really fitting for Michael.
Willa: Yes it is. But Forest Lawn was also an early proponent of cremation. According to Forest Lawn: the First 100 Years, a book published to celebrate their centennial, “Facilities for a crematory were listed among Forest Lawn’s earliest goals in the articles of incorporation in 1906,” and they built a crematory in 1917, when cremation was a pretty unsettling idea for many people and not nearly as accepted as it is today. In fact, one of their many challenges in the early days was “dispelling myths” about cremation.
But while they still offer cremation services, that isn’t what they are known for. They are known for the Great Mausoleum and the beautiful grounds, and the many celebrities who are buried or entombed there.
Eleanor: Yes, and Forest Lawn is probably the only cemetery in the world that has the resources to protect him from crazed love and hate. The part of the mausoleum where he is is kept locked – which may also have something to do with his gold casket. I don’t know. Do either of you? I couldn’t get in when I visited, so had to content myself with imagining what it was like inside.
Willa: Well, the Great Mausoleum is huge, and while some of it is open to the public, a lot of it is private. There’s the main building, which was built in 1917, and then additions have been added over the years. The first was Azalea Terrace in 1919, and then they continued alphabetically up through Jasmine Terrace. Michael Jackson is in Holly Terrace, which was added in 1949. I found a website that had a historical photo taken in 1952, before the Iris and Jasmine terraces were built. Holly Terrace is highlighted in red:
So the Great Mausoleum is an enormous structure, or series of structures, and much of it is inaccessible to the public, though family members may visit whenever they wish. In fact, I believe all of the terraces are private. I’m not sure about that, but I think that’s right. I know Holly Terrace is closed to the public, and Michael Jackson’s family chose to place him there. According to an article in Time magazine published the day of his funeral, concerns about privacy were a major factor in their decision.
Mr. Macdonald told us the Jackson family actually purchased the entire alcove where Michael Jackson is, which includes about a dozen additional tomb spaces in the walls surrounding his crypt. (Mr. Macdonald wasn’t sure of the exact number.) So I assume his mother will one day be laid to rest there, along with other family members as well.
Lisha: That’s really interesting. I have never heard that before.
Willa: I hadn’t either. By the way, you can see the outside of the Jackson alcove in the picture above. It’s the bump-out on the right side of Holly Terrace (the part in red). Here’s a better picture, looking up at the alcove where he is:
And here’s a picture I found on Pinterest of the Jackson alcove from the inside:
The beautiful stained-glass windows surrounding his crypt are called the Ascension windows, and they are based on Nicola D’Ascenzo’s “The Ascension,” which is an elaborate window in the Church of the Good Shepherd in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The series of stone panels on both sides of the alcove are where additional caskets can be slid into the walls.
Eleanor: Willa, thank you so much for including this picture.
Willa: It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And notice all the flowers. While fans aren’t allowed inside Holly Terrace, Mr. Macdonald said they try to accommodate fans as much as possible. He said that, for security reasons, they can’t place anything by his crypt that is sent from outside Forest Lawn. But if fans purchase an arrangement from the Forest Lawn flower shop, so they know it’s safe, they will take it inside and place it by his casket. Fans from around the world regularly do that, he said, and there were a lot of flower arrangements when we were there.
Eleanor: I wish I had known that last year. When we arrived, we headed over to the mausoleum and pressed a button outside the door, and a sepulchral disembodied voice from within told us it was closed, but then directed us to the door closest to Michael Jackson’s resting place.
Willa: Yes, there’s an area near the main door to Holly Terrace that has become a perpetual memorial site. When we were there, there were fresh flowers and letters and hand-made posters, and that was in November, which isn’t really a special time in the Michael Jackson calendar – not like June or August.
Eleanor: Yes. The terrace outside Holly Terrace has become a gathering place for people who have come to honor Michael. There were a few flowers near the door, and love notes. I went to buy some flowers from the onsite florist, and when I came back a few people were standing around talking quietly. I laid my spray down with the others, and then a very nice older man with an Australian accent spoke to me and said he would fill a vase with some water for my flowers so they would last longer in the hot sun. There was a feeling of such love – the love Michael Jackson gave to us in his art and his life we were giving to each other. It affected me really deeply, brought tears to my eyes.
Willa: That sounds lovely, Eleanor. We didn’t see any fans while we were there, but some fans had been there earlier that morning, and Mr. Macdonald said fans visit pretty much every day. And I was deeply affected being there also – more than I expected. I have to say, I didn’t really feel Michael Jackson’s presence at Forest Lawn. I feel him much more strongly when I’m listening to his music, or watching his short films or concert footage. But it was very moving, and there are aspects of Forest Lawn that make it particularly suited to him, I think.
For example, Dr. Eaton wanted Forest Lawn to be a place filled with statues and paintings, where people without much money could walk in a beautiful place and experience great works of art. So there’s incredible statuary, like very well crafted replicas of Michelangelo’s David and The Pieta, and a fascinating work called The Mystery of Life by Italian sculptor Ernesto Gazzeri. Here’s a picture:
There’s also an unusual tableau called Christ and the Children by Vincenzo Jerace. According to Forest Lawn: the First 100 Years, “Eaton took great joy in recounting the story” of Jerace’s statue:
He would tell listeners that he believed that Christ must have had a wonderful warm personality to draw children and adults to Him. But most art depicted Him either in agony on the cross or with a very somber expression. Eaton searched and searched for a Christ figure that exuded joy. Being unable to find such an artwork, he assembled a group of Italian sculptors and explained his vision. Most of them replied that they could not do that as their religion taught them that Christ had suffered for their sins and it would be improper to show a smiling Christ. One artist, however, Vincenzo Jerace, told Eaton that he would try. The result is this statue that is also known as “the smiling Christ.”
Here’s a picture of the Jerace statue:
Lisha: Wow, that is really beautiful!
Willa: Yes, and I really like the story behind it. There’s also incredible stained glass. There’s the reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in stained glass, as you mentioned earlier, Eleanor, which took Italian artist Rosa Caselli Moretti seven years to create using da Vinci’s original sketches. And there are the Ascension windows in the Jackson alcove. There’s also a wonderful place called the Poet’s Corner on a lower level of the Great Mausoleum, where scenes from poetry have been recreated in stained glass. When Toni and I were there the sun was low in the sky and shining directly through those windows, and it just took our breath away. It was indescribably beautiful.
Lisha: I would love to see that. It sounds absolutely gorgeous.
Willa: Oh it was! I tried taking pictures, but I just couldn’t capture that light. I’m not a very good photographer, I’m afraid …
So what I’m trying to get across is that there’s artwork everywhere at Forest Lawn, both inside the mausoleum and scattered throughout the gardens, and the statues of children especially reminded me very much of Michael Jackson. For example, here’s a statue of a girl and a boy looking up at the engraving of Dr. Eaton’s “Builder’s Creed”:
Eleanor: Hmmm. Reminds me of Neverland.
Lisha: That’s exactly what I was thinking!
Willa: I think so too, especially the way they’re holding hands, with a puppy in a wagon. Statues like this are one reason I think Forest Lawn is very well suited to Michael Jackson.
Lisha: You know, not having been to Forest Lawn, I’m having a hard time picturing what a cemetery park looks like, with all the artwork and Michelangelo replicas. It seems so unusual. I found some vacation footage that was posted to YouTube that helped me visualize all of this a little better:
My gut instinct is that Michael Jackson would love this place. In many ways, it seems like the ideal resting place for someone who was so deeply committed to making the world a more peaceful place through beauty and art.
Willa: I agree. It feels right that he should be in such a beautiful place filled with art.
Eleanor: A perfect resting place for an artist, especially a pop artist. Forest Lawn in its early years was a symbol for what is now known as pop culture, but then the juxtaposition of “pop” and “culture” was seen as oxymoronic, if not moronic, reflecting the old British/European snobbery toward the US and its more democratic approach to art, an approach exemplified by American film and popular music. For so long, “culture” and art were identified with the old world, not the new, and with the elite, not the masses.
Willa: Right, and Dr. Eaton wanted to bridge that divide and make “high” art – or at least duplications of high art – available to everyone, including schoolchildren.
Eleanor: It is interesting that Forest Lawn and so many of the people who are buried or entombed there are so closely associated with film, an art form that has struggled to be taken seriously and recognized as art, just as popular music has. And that Forest Lawn came in for some of the same kind of criticism – like that dished out by Mitford and Waugh – that dogged Michael Jackson.
For example, both Forest Lawn and Michael Jackson were accused of “commercialism.” The Los Angeles Magazine described Forest Lawn as a “theme-park necropolis,” paraphrasing Jessica Mitford, indicating “Forest Lawn’s kitsch was just a sophisticated strategy for lubricating the checkbooks of the grieved.”
Lisha: That’s kind of funny, actually!
Eleanor: Yes, and Mitford’s analysis is probably not too far off the mark. I can’t imagine how much it costs to be laid to rest in the mausoleum.
Willa: Yes, but admission is free. Anyone who wants to visit and walk the grounds and view the artwork is able to do that, free of charge. So in death, the wealthy pay to provide art and serenity to everyone. But I imagine you’re right, Eleanor – I imagine it’s very expensive to purchase a crypt in the mausoleum.
Eleanor: Forest Lawn was viewed by Mitford as turning death into an industry, and film and pop music are also referred to as industries – or lumped in together as the entertainment business – or in LA, just “the business.” Certainly, success in these areas does bring fortune as well as fame. And Michael Jackson was often criticized for his focus on sales.
Lisha: Oh, don’t even get me started on the old art/commerce binary! It’s really time to get past that. I’ve noticed it’s the same critics of commercialism who ignore all Michael Jackson albums except Thriller. As a culture, we’re really stuck in the idea that commercial success and artistry are at odds. It’s as if Michael Jackson is somehow “guilty” of having the best selling album of all time.
Eleanor: I know, Lisha. So depressing. And so wrong! He equated sales not so much with money but as an indicator of how many people he was reaching – and changing – through his art.
Willa: Exactly. I interpret this the exact same way, Eleanor. He was trying to change the world, and he needed a global audience to do that.
Eleanor: Also, his commercial success reflected a level of cultural value not usually accorded to black men. So it was very important – especially to him.
Lisha: I agree with you, Eleanor, and I think this can’t be stressed enough. There’s also the cultural idea that only the “original” work of art is of high value, while any duplicate copy, no matter how skillfully done, is a worthless replica devoid of any “real” artistic value.
It seems to me that kind of thinking plays into the devaluation of recorded music, which is often assumed to be of lesser quality because it is factory duplicated and sold to the masses, rather than being reserved for cultural elites.
Willa: That’s a really interesting connection, Lisha.
Eleanor: And, when you think about it, why should art only appeal to the few, and not the many? Why should it be an acquired taste? Forest Lawn, as a symbol of pop culture, is the perfect resting place for the King of Pop.
Lisha: I would have to agree.
Eleanor: Some critics have dismissed Forest Lawn as sort of a Disneyland for the Dead, but I think Michael Jackson would have seen that more positively, given his appreciation for pop culture and Disney. So maybe he would like the idea of being in a Disneyland for the Dead!
Lisha: Hey! Isn’t that literally true? I mean, isn’t Walt Disney buried there?
Willa: Yes, he is – or rather, there’s a private garden dedicated to him where his ashes were scattered. Here’s a link to a description and photos of his garden, which includes a Little Mermaid statue.
Apparently, Walt Disney and Dr. Eaton were good friends, and Disney wanted to be a pallbearer at Dr. Eaton’s funeral but was too sick from lung cancer to attend. He was listed as an honorary pallbearer instead, and died three months later. His nephew, Charles Disney, was also a close friend of Dr. Eaton’s, and wrote a tribute to him after his death.
Lisha: That’s wild. It’s a small world, isn’t it? I also read there is an wonderful art museum at Forest Lawn. An exhibit is on display there now through the end of the year that features the work of Eyvind Earle, one of Disney’s legendary animators. He is credited with conceiving some of the amazing background animation in Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan.
Willa: Wow, and what could be more appropriate than that, given Michael Jackson’s love of Disney and Peter Pan?
Lisha: I agree. That’s an exhibit I would love to see, and I imagine Michael Jackson would have been quite interested as well.
Eleanor: No doubt about it. Michael Jackson was fascinated by film, especially Disney, and oddly enough the hilly terrain where Forest Lawn is located was once used as a location for films. For example, Birth of a Nation was filmed there.
Lisha: Whoa! Birth of a Nation was actually filmed there, before it became a cemetery?
Eleanor: Yes! Can you believe it!
Willa: Wow, I had no idea. That’s mind-boggling.
Eleanor: I mentioned that to my son and he reminded me that when the film industry was new – and it was very new when Birth of a Nation was made – and before LA grew to its current size, a lot of the land surrounding Hollywood served as locations for films, just as LA itself does today. Given Michael Jackson’s interest in film and his desire to be in film, and the personal significance of Birth of a Nation for him, it’s interesting that his tomb is on what once was its set. (“I ain’t scared of no sheets!”)
Willa: That’s really chilling, isn’t it? It adds a whole new dimension to the significance of Forest Lawn as his final resting place. As Joe Vogel talked about in a post with us last year, Birth of a Nation was incredibly influential in shaping American ideas about film and about race – after all, it glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. And Joe sees Black or White as pushing back against that racist history.
So how wonderful that people from around that world now come to that place – the very spot where Birth of a Nation was filmed – to pay tribute to Michael Jackson. What a reversal! That’s incredible.
Lisha: You’re right, Willa, that really does turn the tables, doesn’t it? That’s a wonderful way of thinking about this. As you pointed out earlier, visitors show up almost every day to pay their respects to Michael Jackson, as one of the most famous and distinguished artists of our time. That’s a far cry from the racially segregated future that Birth of a Nation imagines. It is so strange to think that film was widely applauded and accepted in its own time.
Eleanor: Yes, really strange. Also, in a related vein, in its early years Forest Lawn was segregated – closed to African Americans, along with Chinese and Jews.
Willa: That’s another important point, Eleanor. And now their most famous “resident” is Michael Jackson, attracting people from around the world. So again, it’s like an act of reclamation.
You know, in the beginning Forest Lawn was pretty exclusionary in their art also. The emphasis of their collection was definitely on white European art and traditions, especially the Italian Renaissance, with Dr. Eaton visiting Europe again and again in pursuit of art for Forest Lawn.
But they have become more inclusionary now, both in terms of who’s buried there and what kinds of art are displayed there. For example, on June 29, 2000, the Dalai Lama visited Forest Lawn to bless a new sculpture – the Shi-Tro Mandala – and they seem very proud of the fact that while he was there he recognized Forest Lawn as “a sacred place.”
Lisha: That’s amazing! I had no idea.
Eleanor: Wow. A sacred place. I love it. Well, it is sacred to me because Michael’s tomb is there. But I like the idea that the Dalai Lama sees it as sacred, too.
Willa: I do too. Well, thanks so much, Eleanor, for making me aware of what a special place Forest Lawn is, and encouraging me to visit!
Lisha: And thanks for joining us today to talk about it. I learned so much from you both.
Eleanor: Thanks again for inviting me.
Joie: So, Willa … I was thinking about how we’re already into our third year of this blog and all the wonderful posts we’ve done and the amazing conversations we’ve had. You know, we’ve talked about so many different aspects of Michael Jackson’s artistry, from his songs and short films to his impact on an entire generation of people and his contributions to music, fashion, pop culture and humanity. And during all those conversations, there’s actually a topic we haven’t really touched on at all, and I’m amazed that we’ve overlooked it. I’m talking about Remember the Time, both the song itself as well as the short film. In all of the conversations we’ve had the past two years, I don’t think we’ve mentioned it much. Have we?
Willa: No, we haven’t, and it’s a great one to talk about! But we haven’t talked about a lot of incredible work – short films like Beat It and Billie Jean and Scream, as well as other visual art and music and dance. Not to mention the unreleased songs and films, or the classical music he composed that hasn’t even been recorded yet. He left behind a huge body of work.
Joie: So, Remember the Time is actually one of Michael’s greatest short films, in my opinion. Partly because it has such a wonderful and entertaining cast – Eddie Murphy, Iman, and Magic Johnson all simply shine in their roles in this video.
Willa: That’s true, and the relationships between them and the characters they play is interesting as well. For example, Iman’s character, an Egyptian queen, is married to Eddie Murphy’s character, the Pharaoh. But you get the impression she really wants Michael Jackson’s character, a magical/musical mystery man with many hidden talents. The Pharaoh realizes this and feels very threatened by it, so he orders his guards. But while they’re running around chasing this mysterious figure, he’s off having a passionate moment with the Queen in her private chambers.
This is all kind of funny if you remember that, in the 1980s, Eddie Murphy repeatedly made fun of Michael Jackson on Saturday Night Live and in his comedy routines on the Delirious tour and others, implying in not so subtle ways that Michael Jackson wasn’t “masculine” enough. But watching Remember the Time, you get the impression his “wife,” the Queen, doesn’t agree.
Joie: That’s funny, Willa. I had never made that connection before. Of course, I’ve seen those Eddie Murphy skits over and over, but I never thought about them in terms of the Remember the Time video. That’s interesting.
Willa: It is interesting, isn’t it? You know, they really seemed to respect each other a lot, professionally, but there was an edge to it sometimes – just like there’s some animosity between their characters in this film. And there’s definitely an edge between the magician/musician and the Queen as well. It’s presented as an illicit romance, but there’s more to it than that. The Queen demands to be entertained, and when the first two performers don’t please her, she has them executed. So then the magician/musician tries his hand, and he’s drawn to her but seems kind of angry with her too – and you can see why.
Joie: Hmm. Actually I’m not sure that I know what you mean, on either point. With Eddie Murphy, I don’t feel like there was an edge to their friendship at all. I think it seemed really genuine. Those old skits you were talking about before, Michael said once that he thought they were really funny, and he was impressed with Eddie’s singing voice when he would mimic him. So I don’t think there was an edge to it at all.
Willa: Well, you’re right – Eddie Murphy does have a wonderful voice …
Joie: And in the video, the interaction between Michael’s character and Iman’s – I don’t feel that he’s angry with her. To me, the storyline created by the video is one of lost love. They obviously share a romantic history with each other, she is surprised to see him there in the palace that she now shares with her husband the Pharaoh, and he is subtly (or maybe not so subtly) asking her if she remembers “them” – how much in love they were, what they meant to one another. I don’t see him being angry with her.
Willa: That’s funny that we see this all so differently, Joie! My feeling is that Eddie Murphy respected Michael Jackson a lot for his talent and his charisma and his massive sales, but he didn’t understand him at all. According to Randy Taraborrelli, Murphy told him once, “I love Michael, but he is strange.”
Joie: Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t give too much credence to anything Taraborrelli says.
Willa: Well, ok, but it is true that Eddie Murphy ridiculed Michael Jackson a lot in his comedy sketches. I remember seeing a skit on Saturday Night Live a long time ago where he was holding a Michael Jackson doll and basically talking about how effeminate it was. And then at the end of the skit, he pulled the pants off the doll, pointed out it didn’t have any man parts – as if dolls generally do – and said something about it being anatomically accurate. It kind of shocked me, to be honest, just how harsh it was. I haven’t been able to find a clip of it so maybe I’m remembering it as worse than it was, but as I remember it had a very ridiculing tone to it.
I think Eddie Murphy did things like that primarily because he’s a guy-guy, a masculine fellow in a very traditional sense of the word, and he mocked Michael Jackson for not conforming to that – for attempting to redefine what it means to “be a man,” as we talked about with Bad in a post last fall. But while Michael Jackson may not have been macho in the traditional sense, he had an uncanny power that he exercised in gentle ways. We see a glimpse of that in this clip from the 1989 American Music Awards:
It’s a funny clip, but it’s interesting that Eddie Murphy starts to help him with the microphone “like I was working for him or something,” and then stops himself, like it’s beneath his dignity: “Wait, what am I doing?”
But even more importantly, I think, is that they see themselves, their careers, and their cultural function in very different ways. Eddie Murphy sees himself as an entertainer, while Michael Jackson was both an entertainer and an artist – and that’s a huge difference. An entertainer tries to please his audience and give them what they want – like the entertainers who try to please the Queen in the video. And as an entertainer, I think Eddie Murphy thought Michael Jackson was “strange” for not doing that – for not just giving us what we want.
But Michael Jackson had the vision of an artist as well as an entertainer, and artists don’t always try to please us. In fact, sometimes they defy us or make us angry or uncomfortable, or even reshape our desires and force us to question what it is we really want, and why – kind of like his character does with the Queen. He doesn’t just entertain her – he unsettles her as well.
Joie: I understand what you’re trying to say, Willa. But I think it’s a little presumptuous of us to state that we know for certain how Eddie Murphy sees himself, his career or his cultural function. I think it’s much safer to say that you feel this is how he sees things, but you don’t really know that. In fact, for all we know, Eddie Murphy doesn’t even think of himself or his career in terms of his “cultural function” at all. That thought may never have even crossed his mind before. It’s simply an idea that you’re placing on him.
And I would be willing to bet that Eddie Murphy does think of himself as an artist. After all, he does have two albums under his belt and is currently working on a third. He’s provided background vocals for other artists, and sang several songs in the Shrek film franchise. Here’s a link to his new single, a reggae tune called “Red Light,” featuring Snoop Lion.
Willa: You’re right, Joie, I should state things more carefully. I don’t know how he sees himself, but based on the projects he’s done in the past, my feeling is that he’s more an entertainer than an artist. And I say that in large part because, in his work, in general, he seems eager to please his audience and not really challenge us or alter our perceptions or beliefs in any way. His comedy routines can be pretty edgy sometimes – I would say he challenges his audience more through his comedy than his music or films – but he never comes close to bringing about the kinds of deep cultural shifts Michael Jackson did. Michael Jackson challenges us constantly in so many ways – how we think about race and gender, money and power and global inequality, animals and ecosystems and the natural world, children and marriage and family relationships, as well as romance and sexuality and desire. In fact, there are times where he really forces us to question why we desire the things we do.
I see this all playing out in interesting ways in Remember the Time. Iman’s character, the Queen, is bored and fickle and cruel. She wants an entertainer who will amuse her, and when the first two entertainers don’t please her, she casually has them killed, as mentioned before. It’s presented in a comic way, but it’s still chilling.
Then Michael Jackson’s character appears, but he’s way more than just an entertainer. He doesn’t look like much when he first appears in his simple robe and sandals, and the Pharaoh kind of mocks him – just like Eddie Murphy himself mocked Michael Jackson: “And what is it you’re going to do?” But this unimposing figure has uncanny abilities – like Michael Jackson himself – and he both exceeds and defies their expectations.
First he transforms himself into an indeterminate figure who’s wearing both modern black jeans and a transparent Egyptian skirt. It’s the kind of skirt you see Egyptian figures wearing in ancient murals, and I really kind of like it, actually, but it’s not very macho in a traditional sense. But then the Pharaoh realizes that his Queen is seriously turned on by this new kind of man, and his eyes practically bug out at the sight! And soon after we see Michael Jackson’s character surrounded by a ring of dancing harem girls – not bad for a guy in a skirt …
This magician/musician also challenges them both, especially the Queen – the woman who killed his predecessors. After he transforms, he brushes off his arms and juts out his jaw like he’s going into a fight. Then he swipes his mouth with the back of his hand – just like he did in Bad before telling the street thugs that they’re “doing wrong,” and in Ghosts before telling the Mayor and villagers that they’re “doing wrong” also. So this character is far more than an entertainer trying to please his audience. It’s much more complicated than that.
Joie: Well, that’s an interesting interpretation, Willa. And I agree with what you said before about us seeing this so differently because we really do. I believe that this one is simply mirroring the tale that the song is telling, and the Queen becomes hot and bothered when she recognizes her former lover, who is standing there asking her if she remembers the time they spent together. The King is obviously upset about this, and he decides to have him killed once he sees the connection this strange man has to his wife. As I’m fond of saying, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and not everything always has an underlying, symbolic meaning.
Willa: Well, that’s true, Joie, but to me there are a lot of unsettling little details that don’t really add up if this is just a love story. Like, why does he begin this video by showing us that the Queen is a murderer? That’s not very romantic! And why does he set it up so she’s married to someone else? And why does he spend so little time with her? He actually spends a lot more time dancing with the harem girls than he does with her. That doesn’t really fit a love story either.
Joie: I don’t think he’s trying to show us that the Queen is a murderer. I just think he’s trying to show us the culture and the time period that this short film is set in! And she’s married to someone else because she’s the Queen. I don’t know why he chose to set this particular short film in this particular setting. Would it be more romantic if he had set it at a modern-day church where he’s interrupting a wedding to ask the bride if she remembers how much in love they used to be? Maybe. And then he could have spent some time dancing with the wedding party instead of the harem girls!
Willa: But queens don’t have to be married! Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra was a powerful Egyptian queen who had passionate affairs with both Julius Caesar (played by Rex Harrison) and Mark Antony (played by Richard Burton) and she wasn’t married to either one of them. And you know Michael Jackson must have seen that movie, as much as he loved old movies and Elizabeth Taylor.
But my point is, if he simply wanted to make Remember the Time a steamy romance he easily could have, but he didn’t. I mean, there’s a love scene in it, but overall it just doesn’t feel like it’s primarily a love story to me. It seems to me that once again he’s evoking that double relationship we see so often in his songs and videos of a man with his lover as well as a performer with his audience. We’ve talked about that double relationship before in posts about the My Baby songs (songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous”) as well as a lot of the Invincible songs (like “Invincible,” “Don’t Walk Away,” “Butterflies,” “Whatever Happens,” and “Speechless”) and in videos like You Rock My World, Who Is It, and Give In to Me. Over and over we see him creating this double narrative that, on one level, seems to be talking about the relationship between a man and his lover, but on another level is talking about the relationship between a performer and his audience.
And to me, this double relationship is perhaps spelled out more explicitly in Remember the Time than in any other video – after all, he really is playing both roles simultaneously. He is both a man trying to reconnect with a former lover and an entertainer trying to please his audience, all at the same time. I don’t think we see that in any other video.
And if we approach this video that way – as both a lost romance and a story about a performer and his audience – then all those things that really bothered me before make perfect sense. For example, I can understand why he would depict the Queen as fickle and cruel, because audiences really are fickle and cruel. They love Charlie Chaplin or Shirley Temple or Michael Jackson or Justin Bieber one day, and then take great delight in tearing them down the next. And I can understand why he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand like he’s about to go into battle, because I imagine that a lot of times dealing with some members of his audience, especially critics, must have felt like a battle.
Joie: Ok, Willa, when you explain it that way, I can see where you’re coming from. And your interpretation actually makes a lot of sense. I can see the double relationship you’re talking about with the Queen representing the fickle audience here. You’re probably absolutely right. That double relationship was one that Michael used over and over again to get his point of view across and to attempt to educate the rest of us about our behavior. It was a “go to” sort of tactic for him, and one that served him well, I think. I wonder if other artists use it so effectively.
Willa: That’s a good question, Joie. I know it’s fairly common for artists – poets especially – to present the relationship between an artist and his muse as a love affair, but I don’t know about the relationship between an artist and his audience. Hmmm … that’s interesting.
But you know, I don’t mean to say this is the only way of approaching this video. I’m really intrigued by this interpretation, but I feel like I’ve been pushing it too hard. There are a lot of other really interesting ways to approach it as well. For example, I’d like to go back to a question you raised earlier when you said, “I don’t know why he chose to set this particular short film in this particular setting.”
That’s a really good question – why did he choose to set this video in ancient Egypt? It reminds me of something he said in an interview with Jesse Jackson in March 2005:
Michael Jackson: I really love Africa, and I love the people of Africa. … I spend more of my vacation in Africa than any other country. … They never show the sandy, white sugar beaches, and it’s there. … They never show how beautiful the place is, and it’s really stunningly beautiful! And I want to heighten that awareness with what I’m doing, and that’s been my dream for many, many years. …
Jesse Jackson: You know, we know about the high points of Rome because we see it on film.
Michael Jackson: That’s right.
Jesse Jackson: We know about the high points of Britain and the palace. We see it on film. Or on Paris. We don’t see much of Africa on film. We see Africa as misery, and Africa as problems. We do not see it as being this phenomenally endowed continent of sand and sea and oil and resources. …
Michael Jackson: The world is jealous of Africa for many centuries because the natural resources are phenomenal! It really is. And it is the dawn of civilization. Our history, a lot of our Bible history, is right there in Africa. And King Tut, all these great civilizations, that is right there in Africa. Egypt is in Africa! And they always try to separate the two, but Egypt is Africa.
That’s a long quotation, but I think it helps explain why Egypt was so important to him. We see this fascination with Egyptian art and culture running throughout his adult life, and I wonder if that stems in part from an urge to reclaim Egypt as part of black history and culture.
It’s interesting in this context to think about the fact that the Egyptian royal couple played by Eddie Murphy and Iman are black. We don’t usually see that – for example, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra was white. But in Remember the Time, the Egyptian royalty are black. In fact, the entire cast is black. I can’t think of another Michael Jackson video where that’s true. And I wonder if he set it up that way in part to emphasize the idea he expresses in the Jesse Jackson interview that “Egypt is in Africa … Egypt is Africa.”
Joie: That’s a great quote, and I completely agree with what he said in that quote, “they” do always try to separate Egypt from Africa, but it can’t be done. And I think you’re right in suggesting that perhaps that was part of his motive here – to bring an awareness or try to educate us about Egypt being Africa.
Willa: You know, I’d never thought about that before – that Egypt is often separated out from Africa – until I listened to this interview. That’s really interesting, and it adds a whole other dimension to Michael Jackson’s longtime interest in ancient Egypt and Egyptian art. For example, we see it in the Bashir documentary when he talks so enthusiastically about the Egyptian sarcophagus, and we see it in this portrait from the HIStory album, which is modeled after a sculpture of Pharoah Khafre and his protector, the god Horus, who often appears as a falcon:
Interestingly, this sculpture of Khafre and Horus is seen by many scholars as the model for the Sphinx.
Joie: I’ve always thought that was a very interesting picture of him. The likeness is remarkable, I think.
And it is interesting, isn’t it? How the western world attempts to separate the great civilization of Egypt from the brown skinned people who built and ruled it. And that’s just the sort of African (and African American) history that Michael Jackson always seemed to be very drawn to and interested in. The history that he always tried to educate us about.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and he continues our education in subtle ways in Remember the Time.