Robert De Niro and Greta Garbo: A Match Made in Heaven

20 Jan

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Greta Garbo in Anna Christie by Robert De Niro, Sr.

Robert De Niro premiered a new documentary at Sundance film festival this weekend. The half-hour doc was produced by HBO and is about the Oscar-winning actor’s father, the late artist Robert De Niro, at Sun. What’s interesting about “Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr.,” is how it sheds light on the mutual fascination father and son had for another star: Greta Garbo. De Niro, Sr.’s fascination for the movie star was such that he would bring his young son to all her movies – and De Niro, Jr. became fascinated in his own right with her. While his father would paint portraits of Garbo, his son would study Garbo’s acting technique which inspired him to become an actor himself. Who knew?

Greta Garbo was the undisputed Queen of Golden Age Hollywood, or more accurately, Tinseltown from her 1927 silent film debut up to her abrupt departure from the screen in 1941. So much has been written about Garbo that there is very little new light to be shed on the luminous screen creation that was Garbo. The one thing I can add to all the biographies and hagiographies of the iconic actress, however, is why she remains more relevant today than when she was the highest paid woman in the U.S. ($5,000 a week in 1932) and the most recognizable face on the planet. Garbo remains relevant to today’s celebrity-obsessed culture simply because she started it all. She was the first star whose private life became fodder for the tabloids, literally her every move became a matter of record in every newspaper throughout the world.

The list of firsts involving the screen queen goes on and on:

The first time in history a newspaper hired a plane to fly over a celebrity’s house to capture a “candid” photo of the star sun-bathing nude.

The first time a King visited a movie set to pay homage to a movie queen (King Gustav of Sweden to MGM in Hollywood). Of course, Garbo refused to meet him.

The first time a celebrity (since Cleopatra) went by one name.

Garbo. Historians of film still talk about “the Rapture” seeing her face in close-up on screen had on theater audiences, both male and female, throughout the world. Never before had a human visage been captured in light so perfectly and so large – big enough to see every perfect pore of skin (covered in silver make-up made for her by Max Factor himself – so she would literally shine), every eyelash (all natural); ever internal thought conveyed through voluminous eyes.

Garbo, aka “The Face” was said to be the most beautiful woman who ever lived. But more than that, Garbo brought about modern screen acting, making her counterparts Norma Shearer and Marion Davies by comparison, appear to be pantomiming. Screen legend Bette Davis was so obsessed with Garbo’s acting that she stole onto a movie set to see Garbo in action. She came away nonplussed. Later, she saw the footage of that days shooting and was blown away by what the camera saw. Davis said Garbo’s affect on the artificial eye was nothing less than “witchcraft.”

All Garbo’s directors and fellow actors agreed. Seeing Garbo act with the naked eye seemed like nothing special. But then, when the film emulsion was processed and negative became positive – Garbo the screen goddess in all her glory appeared as if by alchemy. Nothing less than magic. Her ability to convey emotion without uttering a word, even moving, seemed supernatural. So much so that the occultists of the day considered Garbo to be more than mortal. She became known in the press as, “The Immortal One.”
Of course, Greta Garbo was not immortal. After her final film, “Two Faced Woman” flopped in 1941, she bid the world goodbye and moved into an apartment in Manhattan, New York and aged quietly, reclusively, until her death in 1990. Yet up until virtually her dying day, Garbo was stalked relentlessly by paparazzi while other glamorous movie stars of her era like Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth and poor Norma Shearer were forgotten once their beauty and fame faded from view.

Why? The easy answer is that Garbo’s steadfast rejection of the modern day cult-of-personality she helped to foment fueled our desire to capture her image evermore in the spotlight. As if, simply by virtue of the fact a famous person wanted to be left alone – we couldn’t allow it in our new age of media obsessed, fame monsters and attention whores. But I have a sneaking feeling there was more to it than that. My sense is that Garbo was more than met the eye, even when she became a shriveled, wrinkled, white-haired old lady. I think Bette Davis was onto something when she gazed at Garbo with those big, Betty Davis blue eyes of hers. I think Garbo was a witch. The most beautiful witch who ever lived, and whose cinematic spell will continue to be cast on generation upon generation of movie lovers – for as long as there is light.

Kirsten Dunst: Girl with a Devilish Smile

29 Dec

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Kirsten is one of my favorite contemporary actresses. She has been in the business a long time and easily one of the best actresses working today. Consistently excellent, the one thing the Dunster her trouble with is connecting with commercially successful roles. Don’t get me wrong, she has had her fair share of hits – though not in the same stratosphere as Jennifer Lawrence or Amy Adams, for instance.

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What sets Kirsten apart from both Lawrence and Adams is that she broke out when she was still a child, in her amazing performance as an immortal, child-vampire in “Interview with a Vampire”. Her ability to convey a woman in a child’s body was eerily on the mark, decades before “Let the Right One In”. Even her kiss with Brad Pitt was convincing, which she said at the time was totally gross.

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Dunst would make many more memorable, star-turning roles in “The Virgin Suicides”, “Bring it On” and “Little Women” but none truly catapulted her back into the spotlight until “Spider Man” opposite Tobey Maguire. Dunst as love interest Mary Jane to Spidey was truly inspired casting and secured Dunst as a bankable star in her own right.

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With Big Box office comes opportunity in Hollywood and Dunst used her new clout to make several smaller, important films. Most recently she portrayed a depressed bride at the end of the world in Lars Von Triers’ “Melancholia” a role that she fully-committed to and was met with critical raves for the young actress.  She was even able to survive Von Trier’s near career-suicide at the Cannes Film Festival when the film debuted. Having grown up in the business, the savvy Dunst is able to navigate the media as easily as she can a choice role.

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One of the more curious movies Kirsten has been in recently is 2012′s “Upside Down” a lavish, visually intoxicating love story set between two worlds who share the same atmosphere – yet different gravity, literally. Dunst was luminous in the film, as she always is, but there was something missing. It was a perfect example of a director and co-star not being able to keep up with a leading lady whose very on-screen presence is more stunning than any special effect. And while the film was lackluster, Kirsten makes the film worth watching just to bliss out on her face for 2+ hours.

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I can’t wait to see the German born American actress in her next star turn, whatever that may be. And my wish for her in 2014 is to connect with the right role that will make audiences realize just how amazing she is. No offense to Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams but Kirsten was here first. And she’s going to be around a long, long time after many of her contemporaries have come and gone.

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Kirsten in a more serious mood.

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A more playful mood by the pool (very patriotic, too).

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And one of my favorite glamor shots of the classic, timeless beauty!

 

Marlene Dietrich: My Blue Angel

1 Dec

Marlene was the first to admit that her onscreen image was a creation of her own and that of director Josef von Sternberg. Imported by Paramount Pictures in 1930 (the execs wanted their own Garbo to make MGM sweat a little at the box office), Marlene had made The Blue Angel in English as well as German to capitalize on the scandalous subject matter. But it was Marlene’s androgynous appeal to women as well as men that made her a huge crossover star in America. Arguably, the German-born actress was as beautiful as goddess Garbo with one distinct difference. Marlene’s sex appeal was derived from her self-effacing sense of humor. If Garbo’s love was tragic – Dietrich’s love was sardonic.

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Marlene called herself the “ersatz-Garbo”. She didn’t like being compared to the Swedish Sphinx and her film roles reflected that fact. Plus, Marlene was more than just a movie goddess: she could sing and dance with the best of them. When she arrived in Hollywood the studio tried to make her sign a morality clause in her contract. America was coming off the hangover of Prohibition and Hollywood didn’t want their stars private lives to overshadow their on-screen creations. No doubt Marlene’s proclivity for bedding as many women as men (she traveled with her lover as well as her broad-thinking husband) gave the studio suits fits of worry and they thought they could control her with money.  Little did they know how smart and strong Marlene could be.

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Marlene may have been a creation of her favorite director/collaborator von Sternberg, but when it came to her career she took no chances. As soon as she could, she assumed control of her movies by becoming one of the first female producers in Hollywood. Now she had a say both on camera and off about the script, costumes, locations and, most importantly, what the censors cut and what she fought to keep in her films. In 1934, the tide changed in Hollywood and the code came into full effect. Only stars of Marlene and Garbo’s stature could fight for the best roles – often times their own studio bosses would try and tame them, watering down the storylines until there was little or no value left in them. Garbo would ultimately throw in the towel and retire in 1941. But Marlene’s star would rise even higher in the wasteland of World War II.

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Dietrich was as strong as she was beautiful. When Hitler commanded her to return to Germany at the outbreak of hostilities – Marlene not only told him where to get off, she did everything in her power to aide the Allies. She was a fixture of War Bond fundraisers overseas. She entertained the troops at USO shows with song and dance (her fabulous legs were insured for a million dollars) and spoke passionately about democracy and her love for America, her adopted country). Marlene truly came into her own during and after the war – and her fans loved her all the more for it. She was like a blonde Venus rising from the catastrophic aftermath of her birth countries bid to rule the world. And she was a shining example of a woman who fought for freedom as hard as any man – and won on her own terms.

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What Marlene lacked in Garbo’s perfect facial features she more than made up for in exquisite make-up effects.

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She liked to say “The Blue Angel” was her first film, even though in reality it was her sixteenth!

Ella Raines: Phantom Leading Lady

17 Nov

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I’ve seen a lot of movies by now but I’m still young enough to have cinematic epiphanies like discovering the beautiful and enigmatic Ella Raines for the first time. This was surprising not least of which because I’m a film noir nut but that once I laid eyes on her amazing face I wondered aloud where she’d been my whole film life. The revelation came in a small, underappreciated though thoroughly engaging noir called “IMPACT” (1949).

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Ella is cast as a gorgeous garage owner in a fairly preposterous scenario involving a love triangle with a man left for dead by his conniving wife. He strays into a small town garage where Ella is doing her best to destroy an auto she is trying to fix. She needs a car mechanic and looking for love at the same time. The first time I saw her stunning face on screen I did a double take. I was discovering her in that garage right along with wronged leading man, Brian Donlevy. Only I forgot completely about his two-timing, back-stabbing, murderous wife and immediately fell head over heals for the insanely gorgeous Ella.

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Ella Raines was born in 1920 and came to Hollywood prominence fairly early in her career. She starred opposite John Wayne in “Tall In The Saddle” (1944) and hit with several other movies like “Brute Force” (1947) where she starred opposite Burt Lancaster. But her signature-noir-roles were in the curious, all-female noir “Cry Havoc” (1943) and, of course, “Phantom Lady” (1944).

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Phantom Lady had a similarly preposterous plot of a conniving woman who has sent a man to death row over a heated row with another woman who had the audacity to wear the same hat at her nightclub show. There’s a murder naturally and it is up to Ella to find out the identity of the Phantom Lady in order to exonerate  her boss – whom she has fallen head over heals for. However, the plot doesn’t matter when you have a woman this gorgeous in a noir so stylistic and well-shot that the atmospherics alone create the mood and forward momentum.

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Ella is simply, darkly gorgeous in Phantom Lady. She inhabits the shadows and imbues the cigarette smoke-filled environment with a white-hot drive to save the man she loves. She’s formidable in her gallant effort to stop a would-be femme fatale and that’s enough for this moody, brooding and over the top noir. At a tight 88 minutes of running time, Phantom Lady does what it sets out to do: introduce the world to one of the greatest beauties unleashed on the silver screen in glorious black & white.

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Ella continued to act both in film and television after her amazing start to her career. But the roles were mostly in B-movies, turkeys that no matter how she shined and was shot – were still turkeys. She even had her own television show where she starred as a registered nurse (back when that career alone could be the basis of an entire show). And like so many actresses before her – she worked well into her late 50′s and 60′s with her last screen credit in 1984 – four years before her death by throat cancer in 1988.

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Ella was a classic beauty who had brains and talent more than luck with movie roles. I’m glad that Impact was my first introduction to her because it was a good noir with an interesting role for Ella. Plus, she was an absolute knockout with her hair pulled back and engine grease on her face in tailored white coveralls. If there were only women like her in garages in small towns throughout the country today. America would be a much better, much sexier place.

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My favorite glamor shot of Ella because she’s almost smiling.

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There. She finally did it. She smiled!

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And now a bit of cheesecake for the boys…

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Before going back to smoldering sensuality.

Lizabeth Scott: Ultimate Femme Fatale

11 Nov

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Lizabeth Scott is simply one of the most unusual and glamorous stars of Hollywood. Her timing was impeccable because her smoky sensuality and husky voice came at the exact moment film noir was establishing itself as the dominant genre in post World War II America. She started out on Broadway as a sub for Tallulah Bankhead in a play called “The Skin of Our Teeth” though Lizabeth never got to shine because Tallulah never got sick.

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Instead, Lizabeth (she dropped the “e” to be different) was noticed by film scouts who brought her to the attention of producer Hal Wallis.  Wallis was the genius who brought us “Casablanca” and he saw talent in the young (Lizabeth was 20) would-be screen siren. Lizabeth tested at Warner Bros. and it was a disaster but Wallis still liked her look enough to bring her with him to Paramount Pictures when he left Warner Bros. – he and Jack Warner having had a bitter falling out over Warner “stealing” the Best Picture Oscar from Wallis for Casablanca. Wallis would remember this the rest of his career and wasn’t going to let anyone take his new starlet out from under him.

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Wallis dubbed Lizabeth “The Threat” and made her over into a femme fatale and perfect foil for some of the screen’s greatest leading men. Arguably the greatest was Humphrey Bogart, whose wife Lauren Bacall and Lizabeth had similar character traits in common. Lizabeth and Bogie got to work together in the noir classic “Dead Reckoning” and Lizabeth held her own against the formidable screen presence of Bogart. She was able to be charming at the same time rip smart-aleck lines right after another. Her portrayal of world-weary, potentially dangerous women on the outside of polite society looking-in was an instant favorite of movie goers. She suspected everyone of having an angle – as did a new generation of world-war-weary Americans. She was in good company from the start.

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But Lizabeth was quickly typecast as the femme fatale of noir. She made 20 films in her time in Tinseltown and more than 80-percent of them were classic noir scenarios. Except for her very last performance in 1957, when she starred opposite a young Elvis Presley in the curious “Loving You”. Curious because the King actually had screen chemistry with the Queen of Noir in a technicolor musical and one of his first of 27 Presley movies. Off-screen, the two became great friends and stayed in touch even after Lizabeth retired from films. In fact, Lizabeth was a singer herself and would release the eponymous “Lizabeth” which, true to its name, was full of torch-songs as well as light-hearted love ballads.

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The thing I love most about Lizabeth was truly how different she was to any other actress that came before, or after, her time in the spotlight. She projected a character that had seen the dark side of life, one that had survived in spite of the lousy hand she’d been dealt. The kind of alley cat that had been kicked around and never wanted to trust anyone or get hurt, again. Yet in spite of it all, she would fall in love again and again. Sometimes the guy was on the level, sometimes not and Lizabeth’s characters would take their lumps and move on. This classic noir archetype existed before Lizabeth but she brought it into vogue – the vamp with a heart – and made it her own signature style. It’s as distinctive as her voice and her angular, often smiling in spite of the pain visage. Many actresses would imitate this style later but few would come close to Lisabeth’s signature persona.

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It astounds me that Lizabeth hasn’t received more acclaim for her work in noir. The great actress is still with us (she was born in 1922 so you do the math) and I think that the new generation of neo-noir directors (i.e. Rian Johnson, Brian Helgeland, etc.) would want to cast this living legend even if just for a cameo – in their films. Or, maybe they’ve tried and Lizabeth has rebuffed their advances like her character did in so many of those inspiring, femme fatale roles she created. She’s truly like Garbo in this way – she does want to be left alone. Still, I would give my eye teeth to sit down and talk with such a classy, under-appreciated original like Lizabeth. It would be a privilege and an honor to sit across the table from the actress who starred opposite so many golden age movie stars. And probably more than a little intimidating, too.

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A classic publicity shot of the up-n-coming star during her heyday in the California sun.

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One of the few shots of Lizabeth smiling…right before she devours you!

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That’s more like it. The Queen of the Femme Fatales in classic evening gear. The cigarette is smoldering and so is her glare.

Elisabeth Shue: Golden Goddess

9 Nov

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Part of the fun of writing a blog dedicated to Hollywood’s Leading Ladies is rediscovering the moment you fell in love with an actress via the silver screen. Sometimes its not the first time you meet but often when they shine in a film that brings out their amazing talent. But then again it can be love at first sight as was the case with Elisabeth Shue. I first laid eyes on Shue in “The Karate Kid” way back in 1984. She played Ali Mills the love interest of little Ralph Macchio and just about the hottest teen heartthrob there was. Shue acquitted herself admirably as the girlfriend and love interest, something she would do again in “Back to the Future, Part II” (1989). For Hollywood, Elisabeth seemed just a pretty-face but that was about to change, radically.

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Like so many actresses, Elisabeth was looking for a meaty role to break out of the cycle of girlfriend roles she was being offered again and again. wholesome, blonde and athletic she exudes the girl-next-door quality that made her initial break into features a no-brainer. But Shue knew she was capable of so much more and stuck to her guns to find a role that would highlight a darker side. And what better role against type for a wholesome, blonde and athletic girlfriend than a dark, disillusioned call girl based in Sin City.

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Sera in “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995) was a tour-de-force performance for the golden actress. She falls hopelessly in love with Nick Cage’s depraved alcoholic screenwriter, on a weekend bender bent for oblivion. Shue received her only oscar-nomination for best actress and she should have won. The unflinching honesty of her damaged hooker looking for real love is a heartfelt and incredibly deeply personal performance that forever changed the way Hollywood would look at the actress. I couldn’t get over how Shue, the golden girl, became the worldly woman, trapped by circumstances barely touched on in the film’s backstory yet always apparent just behind her beautiful, slate-blue eyes.

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The seasoned actress (she’d been acting for thirteen years by then) suddenly became Tinseltown’s It-Girl. But the film roles she received were almost always sub-par compared to her acting chops. “The Trigger Effect” (1996) was a dud as was “Hollow Man” (2000) a redux of the Invisible Man with Kevin Bacon going berserk and terrorizing his former flame. The best part about the movie was Elisabeth beating the hell out of a crazed bacon (or, his invisible alterego). Unfortunately, Shue never again received a role that would highlight her complex and multi-faceted talents. The vagaries of Hollywood casting never again aligned with this movie star’s unusual talent, a tragedy that befalls so many actresses in the fickle industry of show business.

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But the great part about Elizabeth, other than the natural beauty and inner strength, is that she never gives up. And so, we can celebrate her 31 year career in film and television. An amazing canon of work in any business and one that we can revisit again and again. I’m so happy that she has her “Leaving Las Vegas” along with “The Karate Kid” and “Back to the Future, Part II and III” because we might never have realized this golden goddess of the silver screen is more than just a pretty, photogenic face. She is a serious actress who constantly works at her craft.  That’s a rare thing in Hollywood, to say the least!

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Keep on smiling, Shue!

Rachel McAdams: Timeless Beauty

9 Nov

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There are so many Rachels in the world but none more beautiful than Rachel McAdams. The actress hit the scene in “Mean Girls” (2004) which is ironic because ever since she’s been portraying nice girls on film. Especially nice girls where the boy travels in time like this weekend’s romantic comedy “About Time.” Before that it was “Midnight in Paris” (okay, she wasn’t so nice in that one, either) and “The Time-Traveler’s Wife.” Is is a coincidence or does Rachel possess a timeless beauty that makes her the queen of the time-traveling genre?

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What’s almost as interesting about Rachel is the roles she hasn’t gotten since she hit the silver screen. Since 2004, she has been up for some of the biggest roles in tinseltown, only to be beaten out at the last second by a bevy of other beauties: Rachel was in consideration for the role of Rachel Dawes in “The Dark Knight” (2008), but Maggie Gyllenhall was cast instead. She was in consideration for the role of Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby” (2013), but then Carey Mulligan was cast instead. Rachel auditioned for the role of Sophie for the musical “Mamma Mia” (2008) but lost out to actress Amanda Seyfried. She was considered for the role of Vesper Lynd in “Casino Royale”(2006), before the role was given to Eva Green. Rachel almost portrayed Pepper Potts in the first “Iron Man” but turned down the role! And we all know what goopy-actress ended up with that mega-hit-slash-movie franchise.

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But for all the roles she’s missed out on it really doesn’t matter because Rachel is having fun…and that’s what counts. She’s not a megastar but nor does she want to be. She’s a great actress and I have no doubt that she will ultimately break out of the romantic comedy/drama genre one of these days. Until then, she is the go-to actress for stories full of love and loss and love again. She enjoys making people feel good and has a light touch on screen. I just hope she lets the time-travel thing drop after this latest one for awhile. I wouldn’t want her to get typecast – even though she is a beauty for the ages.

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A rare photo of Rachel with a pout where her fantastic smile usually goes.

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A great photo of her that shows off her amazing eyes!

 

Katherine Ross: Sundance to Stepford Wife

3 Nov

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Thank god for the internet. Whatever else the internet may be it is definitely our species collective memory from now on forward. A visual and virtual archive of riches from the trivial to the earth-shattering. And on any given night, the internet provides a stroll down memory lane for a cinefile in love with leading ladies like myself. And that’s where Miss Ross comes in. I refuse to believe this fresh-faced, doe-eyes waif of a gorgeous woman is celebrating her 73 birthday this year! Katherine will always be one of the true beauties of the cinema and a goddess of the 60′s and 70′s when her look defined a generation. To me she defined the wholesome, bright and independent women who were emerging out of the 60′s sexual revolution. Her role in The Graduate opposite a very young Dustin Hoffman is only one example of Katherine embodying the changing attitudes and social morays that defined her generation – and subsequent generations to come – in trying to find their place in the world.

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But I wasn’t part of her generation. I came later and experienced Katherine Ross on a different, much more primal level. By the time I caught up to her, I was watching her visage on a tiny (we’re talking 20-inch screen) color TV. All I saw was a ravishingly-beautiful woman so photogenic that she appeared to glow from within. So beautiful, that I instantly wanted to know more about this person – way before the internet could make that instantaneous.

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My first blush with Katherine was Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. A classic by any measure and one that captured Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross at the height of their physical and creative powers in a modern western fantasy. A fantasy in large part because of Katherine’s shear magnetism, magnified by her two leading men. Check out the “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” scene with Paul and Katherine, a bicycle and a bull and tell me it doesn’t immediately put a smile on your face. The beauty of that filmic moment plays on in the mind like an amber-hued echo, no matter how old they were when they first saw it.

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Katherine wore a cowboy hat better than any cowboy ever could!

Of course, the true testament to a movie star will always come down to talent, no matter how beautiful and photogenic they are. Katherine Ross is a perfect example of this because her range was not limited to one specific genre. Name an actress who had a smash hit in a coming-of-age hit, a western and then segued to a sci-fi romp that would inevitably riff off the stereotype of beauty with no soul: in this case, men who replace their beautiful wives with beautiful, doppelganger robots!

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It’s perfect casting because Katherine Ross is perfect. Perfect in that her beauty could easily be her defining trait, but also in that there is much more below the surface. “The Stepford Wives” is one of those films that stands up over time because of a visual sensibility and because the casting was the best special effect so they didn’t muck it up with stupid effects. And Miss Ross is perfect in the role of a woman trying to break the ’70′s stereotype of a woman so beautiful that she must not have brains and talent and right to a life of her own. But most of all, the film is watchable by today’s standards because Katherine is so watchable. Because she elevates the material beyond the mediocre like only a true movie star can transcend time and space and make a connection to their audience, even decades later.

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And there’s my cue for Katherine Ross’s greatest quality: Timeless Beauty mixed with a tinge of sadness. Her eyes convey a soulfulness but also a certain melancholy that magnifies her outward perfection. Her stare is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It conveys (at least to me) that she wants to be respected, understood, loved and not trifled with. Projection, of course – but isn’t that what an actor at the top of their craft do with a single look? Capture and reflect back our own nature like a mirror for the soul? Katherine did this for her own generation and has been doing it ever since for those who see in her a collective sense of loss. Loss of meaning as in The Graduate, loss of the men she loves in Butch & Sundance; loss of our very humanity in The Stepford Wives. In each performance, Katherine embodied a character in the process of loss. And she did it so effortlessly that sometimes people forget what an amazing actress she was in addition to being a beauty for the ages.

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Katherine will always hold a special place in my heart from the days I first met her on that tiny little color TV. For me, she’ll never grow old but stay young and vibrant in the collective memory of several generations of moviegoers.

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Oh, and by the way – she’s still hot today at 73!!

Janet Leigh: Original Scream Queen

31 Oct

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Sex and Death. Leave it to Alfred Hitchcock to inextricably link the two in the mind’s eye of an impressionable youth through the delightful visage of Janet Leigh in a black bra. And what a black bra it was. In his macabre masterpiece, “Psycho” (1960), Hitchcock found his perfect, doomed muse in the beautiful Ms. Leigh. The actress was at the pinnacle of beauty, her strong, sexually confident gaze spellbound audiences from the very first frame when we see her entwined with her lover in a cheap hotel in the middle of a hot afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona.

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The narrative progression in Psycho is very important. Hitchcock leaves nothing to chance. He is carefully building sympathy and at the same time antipathy for Marion Crane, Janet’s character in the movie. Remember, this is 1960. Marion is having an afternoon tryst with her lover during her lunch break! That’s hot stuff, baby. Both want to go legit and get married but money (what else) hangs like a dead albatross between them. So, Marion goes back to work where she is tempted with a big pay-off…$40,000. Now, lest you be thinking $$$ is the root of all evil – the Benjamins in her purse have nothing on Norman Bates.

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And here we come to the infamous black bra. There is some debate as to whether Psycho is the first time a black bra was worn by a leading lady (feel free to refute this with cinematic evidence) but there is no question that Psycho was the first time in cinematic history that a toilet was shown. By today’s standards the shock value of seeing a commode on film is laughable but in 1960 it was prurient, invasive and in some parts of the country bordering on obscene.  Mix that with a sexy leading lady of Janet Leigh’s A-List stature being watched in her black bra through a peep-hole by a introverted-slash-creepy motel office clerk – sex and death start to bubble up in your subconscious. Remember, Janet appears in a white bra and panties in the first frame of Psycho – whereas now she is in the same bra and panties only black. The viewer’s subconscious is running amok on this small detail even while the conscious takes little note of it. And that’s where Hitchcock’s true visual mastery comes in. He’s messing with you on a primal level. Primal fear, that is, even before you’re fully aware of it. Too late, in fact.

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Before the infamous shower scene, the audience has been led to believe that Marion Crane is going to get a good night’s sleep and return to Phoenix the next morning to return the money and redeem herself. She and the audience doesn’t realize that she will never get the chance. Her actions have led her, albeit inadvertently, into the path of true evil. And that evil is not Norman Bates, but Mrs. Bates, Norman’s uncompromising Mother. Mother has the last word on Marion Crane. And not because she knows about Marion’s crime of stealing money. No, Marion’s crime is much deeper and much more primal: It is a Mother protecting her son from a seductress; a worldly woman who threatens to take him away from her. The fact Mother is dead and living on through the twisted imagination of her Oedipally-challenged son is irrelevant. The women of Psycho are the ones who hold the power and call the shots. Watch the film and see for yourself. Only the persistence of yet another woman – Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) will unveil Mother and put her where she belongs.  There’s femme-fatales walking all over the men in Psycho – a delicious and irresistible mixture of sex and death. And none of them are as beautiful as Janet Leigh.

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A younger Janet in a pre-Psycho glamor shot. You’ve got to love that shimmery blouse!

Garbo: Viking Goddess and Independent Woman by Jacob M. Appel

20 Oct

Swedish actress Greta Garbo accomplished in less than two decades what advocates for women’s rights had sought for centuries: she showed the American public that feminine sexuality was compatible with intelligence. During the 1920s, when liberated flappers still attracted scorn from mainstream society, Garbo’s depiction of independent yet feminine beauties helped convince millions of American women that sexual initiative was not a man’s prerogative. Garbo “was allowed the right to have amorous needs and desires,” according to biographer Karen Swenson, and her popularity with both sexes enabled her to challenge “traditional roles with few negative consequences.” At the same time, Hollywood’s highest paid female star eschewed media attention and created a mystical image around her indifference to public opinion. At the age of thirty-six, Garbo retired to a life of almost hermetic seclusion. Film critic David Thomson saliently observed that “in making the journey away from fame into privacy she established herself forever as a magical figure, a true goddess, remote and austere, but intimate and touching.”

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Hollywood’s Viking beauty began life as Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on September 18, 1905. She grew up in an impoverished Stockholm household and went to work as a lather girl in a barber shop at age fourteen. By sixteen, the aspiring actress had garnered admission to Sweden’s exclusive Royal Dramatic Theater Academy. She soon impressed Scandinavia’s foremost director, Mauritz Stiller, with her perfect instincts and dignified beauty. He gave her the stage name Garbo and cast her as Countess Elizabeth Dohna in the silent screen masterpiece The Story of Gosta Berling.

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A leading role in G. W. Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925) soon followed. The part, that of a struggling Viennese women on the verge of prostitution, permitted Garbo to explore sexuality on screen for the first time. The film itself shattered box office records and became an enduring masterpiece of realistic cinema. Garbo’s great break occurred when Louis Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer recruited Stiller for his Hollywood studios. The established director insisted that his relatively obscure nineteen-year-old starlet accompany him to the United States. Stiller was soon exported back to Stockholm while Garbo became a box office sensation.

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The eleven silent movies that Garbo filmed between 1925 and 1929 earned her critical claim as Hollywood’s most talented female actress. Starring across from leading man John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil (1927) and Love (1927) she awed audiences and shocked censors with her forthright sexuality. Garbo displayed her wide range playing a Spanish opera singer in The Torrent (1926), a Russian spy in The Mysterious Lady (1928), an English aristocrat in A Women of Affairs (1928) and a southern belle in Wild Orchids (1929). The star’s appearance influenced an entire generation as millions of female fans copied her tastes in clothing and hair styles. Crazes for artificial eye lashes and cloche hats swept the nation. Meanwhile Garbo, whom Claire Booth Luce described as “a deer in the body of a woman living resentfully in the Hollywood zoo,” distanced herself from both the public and the Los Angeles social scene.

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Garbo may have been one of the leading box office draws of the silent era but few critics expected her to make the transition to talkies. The advent of sound ended the careers of most silent stars and the Swede’s deep voice and heavy accent were expected to turn off audiences. Instead, the twenty-five-year-old actress gave her most compelling performance in an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play Anna Christie (1930). She played a waterfront streetwalker searching for her barge-captain father. Her opening words, at that time the longest sound sequence ever heard in a film, are cinematic legend: “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side … and don’t be stingy, baby!” Other hits followed. Mata Hari (1932), Queen Christina (1935), Anna Karenina (1935) and Camille (1936) confirmed her reputation as the leading lady of the early sound era. Garbo’s greatest role, that of the suicidal Russian dancer Grusinskaya in Grand Hotel (1932), ranks among the best female leads ever seen on the large screen. It is here that she declares her haunting wish: “But I want to be alone.” After surprising success as the comic lead in Ninotchka (1939), Garbo filmed the lackluster Two-Face Woman (1941) and then retired from the public eye. She was thirty-six years old.

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During the last five decades of Garbo’s life, “The Scandinavian Sphinx” established herself as cinema’s leading enigma. She travelled extensively but turned down all requests for public appearances. Instead, she entertained such close friends as Winston Churchill and Martha Graham in her posh New York City apartment. As one of the grande dames of American cinema, her intimates included William Paley, Anthony Eden, Jean Cocteau, Irwin Shaw, Dag Hammarsjokld, Cole Porter, and Jacqueline Kennedy. She also devoted herself to amassing an internationally renowned art collection which boasted masterpieces by Renoir and Bonnard. Garbo received an Honorary Academy Award in 1954 for “unforgettable screen performances.” She died in New York City on April 15, 1990.

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Greta Garbo entered the American consciousness during the mid-1920s at an historical moment when gender roles were in flux. The young actress came to represent a palatable form of female liberation and brought the icon of the independent woman home to Middle America. As biographer Karen Swenson described the star, “Her intimate posture and kisses suggested a woman—not a vamp—who was secure in her sexuality.” Garbo’s influence endured long after she became film’s most celebrated recluse. Throughout her life, she remained private, elusive, and conspicuously unmarried. “There is no one who would have me. I can’t cook,” she once joked—displaying the combination of independence and feminine intelligence which made her famous.

Source: St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, St. James Press (2002) Gale Group

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