In her seminal essay on the subject, Susan Sontag attempts to define the sensibility known as camp with examples—instances in popular and unpopular culture that manufactured or exude the camp aesthetic. Many of these cited works are cinematic: Mae West’s she-womanness in She Done Him Wrong, camp. Humphrey Bogart’s slickness in the seminal film noir The Maltese Falcon, camp. Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, un-camp, too self-aware. Anita Ekberg as the fountain-water nymph in La Dolce Vita, certifiably camp.
The year this list was made was 1964, the same year a film by the name of What a Way to Go! was released. Directed by J. Lee Thompson, it’s a dark comedy starring Shirley MacLaine that swirls like a fantastical kaleidoscope of feathers, diamantés, and hairpieces, crisscrossing from dusty small-town America to Paris’s beatnik Left Bank to a glitzy midcentury Manhattan. All the while, MacLaine finds herself in and out of matrimony a total of four times—four times a bride, four times a widow.
But a black widow she is not; each of her husbands drives himself to death, fueled by an insatiable hunger for money and power. MacLaine’s blink-and-you-missed-him male suitors are played by Dean Martin, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Bob Cummings, and Gene Kelly. “And if that’s not enough to keep everybody swinging,” the film’s trailer narrates, “there’s a pink Rolls-Royce, and a slick jetliner complete with orgies[!!!], and a chimp named Frida who paints like Rembrandt.” If Sontag were to amend the list: What a Way to Go!, C.A.M.P.