Linda Blair: Exorcist Aftermath

31 Oct

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The Exorcism (1973) is one of those classic horror films that is surrounded by Hollywood legend. So much time has passed, four decades and counting, that it has taken on that patina of mythology for younger generations to encounter and be spellbound by. But behind all the hype and marketing manipulation, there was a distinct air of evilness that shrouded the production and its young star, Linda Blair. Few but the devoted fanatics (myself included) know that Linda, a tender-hearted twelve year old when she made the film – would literally go through hell as a result of the film’s impact on popular culture. And she would experience typecasting of the magnitude of Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960).

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Linda Blair is one of the most naturally-talented actresses there has ever been. She was a virtual unknown when cast for the role of Regan. And anybody who has seen the film could not possibly imagine anyone in the role but her. William Peter Blatty, the author of the 1971 novel of the same name who adapted his own work and won an adapted screenplay Oscar for his efforts – has said as much in numerous interviews over the years. The novel, once thought impossible to adapt for the screen because of its graphic nature, left everybody wondering whether the film would be an outright catastrophe. The fact that the production was slated for 82 days and ended up being 252 days left everyone at the studio freaking out. But as legend would have it, Director William Friedkin came up with an ingenious way out of poor word of mouth. His solution: start the Hollywood rumor that the production itself was cursed by the devil.

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Friedkin was a total tyrant on the Exorcist set. He was not above trickery to get his actors to react in a natural, horrified way. For instance, he built Regan’s bedroom inside a freezer unit so that you could see the actor’s breath when they spoke during the exorcist scenes. This caused the young Linda, dressed on in a thin nightgown, to forever after hate being cold. Ellen Burstyn, playing her mother Chris, suffered a back injury when she was yanked across the room via harness by an overzealous stagehand to effect the devil slapping her. But to be fair, Linda has said that she never suffered any emotional distress as a result of the filming. No, that would come later.

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The Exorcist premiered in December 1973 to an unsuspecting public. The film had a massive impact on popular culture, taking the audiences by surprise to such a degree that many fainted, became physically-ill and had to be taken out of the theater to recuperate. The film was graphic in its depiction of a 12-year old girl being possessed by the devil and director Friedkin had pulled no punches. But what pulled off the effect more than the make-up, or the pea-soup vomit, was Linda Blair’s natural talent and ability to portray a possessed child. And boy did she pull it off. So well, in fact, that people came away from watching the movie that she in fact had been possessed by the devil. The suspension of disbelief had been so successful and complete that people thought Linda Blair, 12 year old actress, was the devil incarnate.

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The movie-industry reaction was immediate and positive. Linda was the brightest actress to come along in a very long time and she was nominated and won a the 1974 best actress Golden Globe. She was in heaven and sought after by every producer and director in tinseltown. But what she was about to realize (and has been documented in numerous interviews and productions since) was that the worldwide general public was completely freaked out by the movie (which was rumored to include demonic subliminal images) and that her young life would never, ever be the same. The fact that 9 people associated with the movie has lost their lives over the course of the production did not help matters.

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In support of the film, Linda was obligated to embark on a worldwide marketing tour for the Exorcist. But what she didn’t realize was that very often people could not tell the difference between that of Regan, her character in the movie, and Linda the young actress. The reaction was immediate and dramatic, with people practically jumping out of their skin at the sight of her. From London to France, Australia to Japan she saw the same reactions from superstitious people who had seen the movie and in turn thought she was possessed by Satan in the flesh.

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What followed for young Linda was a hard path back to normalcy. An avid horsewoman, she retreated to the family stables and spent her time away from the public eye. But at the same time she had been firmly bitten by the acting bug and soon secured other, ambitious roles that proved the acting chops she had exhibited in The Exorcist were not a fluke. And Hollywood was only too happy to take advantage of a young, beautiful actress who could handle situations well beyond her years. They exploited her beauty and talent over and over again, in such projects as Born Innocent (1974), a TV movie that dealt with Juvenile Delinquency in the harshest of portrayals ever seen on TV. Infamous for the first-ever lesbian rape scene to be depicted on television, Born Innocent would spark public outcry and cause the networks to backtrack from graphic content shown at a time when young children may still be viewing. The actress herself felt taken advantage of and it would be decades before the film would be shown again with the rape scene intact.

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In the subsequent years, Linda would grow into a beautiful, vivacious and outgoing teen. She would taste all there was to savor of the limelight for a young actress exposed to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the heyday of the mid-to-late 1970’s. She dated everyone from Rick Springfield to Rick James, and would appear in the misdirected sequel, Exorcist II (1975). A dreadful remake by any definition, the film co-starred Richard Burton on a bender (or, at least he should have been making this drivel) and was a debacle from the first frame. The only thing Exorcist II did was prove just how classic it’s predecessor was in style, content and execution. Even the beautiful Miss Blair was unable to rise above the celluloid trainwreck. And in some ways, the would-be horror franchise misfire would foretell her own professional and personal misfortunes to come.

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Toward the end of the 70’s, Linda would get caught up in an unfortunate drug bust involving cocaine. She would not only be charged with possession but intent to distribute. Linda would plea-bargain and get 5-years probation with a $5,000 fine. She would also have to tour the country and talk to kids about the evil of drugs. But the harshest sentence would come from Hollywood itself. The once bankable star now would be lucky to land B-movie horror vehicles. The extremely talented actress was considered damaged goods and never be able to attain the stature that she once enjoyed at the tender age of 12. It was nearly a death sentence for her career. But she would not let it get her down like so many other child stars. Linda was too talented and too smart. She would play the roles she could get, show a little (or a lot) of skin and survive in the wilds of tinseltown.

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But there would always be her fans from The Exorcist, who knew better and could see beyond the roles that Linda had been reduced to playing. Hers is an ardent and loyal fan-base of followers, those who would watch anything she appeared in (guilty pleasures most of them) and root for her to continue her career. And Linda would be able to sustain her sanity, something young stars today should take notice of, working in her chosen profession and all the while giving her fans what they wanted – more Linda Blair. I must admit that I’ve seen my fair share of Linda’s work and there are moments of brilliance from the actress even in the trashiest of B-movie titles.

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Linda is a survivor and is healthier than ever today. She’s embraced a completely vegan diet which is more a testament to her love of animals than anything. And she has a foundation to rescue and rehabilitate abused animals. For me, Linda has always been as beautiful inside as she is out. She readily admits to have made her fair share of mistakes but kept her head held high and persevered in an industry where so many have burned out and disappeared completely. And while she’s never been able to recapture the level of fame she enjoyed and then suffered because of The Exorcist, she enjoys the honor of being an integral part of one of the most influential films ever made. After all, The Exorcist was the first horror film ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (the golden statuette would eventually go to The Sting).

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I think the film is ultimately a testament to the talent of a young actress to let herself be totally possessed by a role and a director with a pure, albeit often ghastly, vision one of the greatest storylines of all time – the battle between good and evil on earth. And she approached the role as she has a lot of trials and tribulations in her life – with integrity, talent and a lightness of heart that makes me wish she had more opportunities to show us just how amazing an actress she really is. Without her, I believe The Exorcist would not be the classic film experience it is hailed to this day. Beyond horror, it terrified audiences because they cared about Regan, the young protagonist fighting for her life. And as amazing as the make-up effects are (thanks to veteran make-up artist Dick Smith) if it wasn’t for one fearless little girl doing her best behind all the prosthetics to believed a demon could possess a human host, the audience would never have been bedeviled.

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Here’s praying you enjoy The Exorcist for sheer entertainment value and marvel at young Linda’s tour de force performance this Hallow’s Eve.

Simone Simon: Original Catwoman

26 Oct

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Simone Simon (pronounced “see-moan see-moan”) is one of my favorite Golden Age movie actresses. She was born Béthune, France on April 1911 and was a delightfully kittenish actress, whose triangular face and gamine figure were often called feline, an appropriate description of an actress whose most famous American film was the classic Val Lewton production Cat People (1942). The film has been sited as a major influence to many of today’s most successful filmmakers and if you’ve ever seen it you know why. The film is creepy as hell. And Simone is absolutely mesmerizing as a woman who turns into a panther when she becomes jealous. She was the original catwoman, or, “sex kitten” for her time and was a precursor of Brigitte Bardot. That said, I think she’s more glamorous and refined than Bardot, but to each his own.

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In 1934, Simone came to the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox who offered her a contract. However, as often happened with overseas leading ladies, the studio seemed unsure what to do with her. Her first American film, Girls’ Dormitory (1936), is best remembered if at all for Tyrone Power’s first speaking part. He had just one line, “Can I have this dance?”, addressed to Simone in the final scene. It provoked such a response from the public that he was propelled to instant stardom.  Simone made an impression as well, as the New York Times critic Frank Nugent suggested “that Congress cancel a substantial part of France’s war debt in consideration of its gift of her to Hollywood”. I would agree.

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She was one of four girls finding romance in Budapest in Ladies in Love (1936), which had one of the studio’s favourite themes – working girls hiring a lavish apartment to make an impression on boyfriends. A minor comedy, Love and Hisses (1937), was followed by her best role from this period, as the tragic waif of Seventh Heaven (1937), although her leading man, James Stewart, hardly made a convincing Parisian sewer worker. But just thinking of Jimmie doing his schtick in a Paris sewer should get you to rent this movie. And the fact that Simone is absolutely stunning opposite him is worth it altogether.

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Hollywood beckoned again, and Simone returned with a bewitching portrayal of an unearthly seductress in William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), an adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s fable about a simple farmer who sells his soul to the devil. Simon later confessed she thought the piece “too heavy-handed”. That’s relative, of course, and the portrayal stands up today as a femme fatale worth losing your eternal soul to possess – at least for a little while.

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She was then cast in the film for which she is best remembered, as the tragic heroine who turns into a cat when jealous, in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942). One of the most intelligent and haunting of “B” movies, there were two scene that stand out for their iconic imagery.

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The best one is  set in a swimming pool (that’s Jane Randolph freaking out in the pool while being stalked by Simone). The other is in a deserted street and among one of the most eerily disturbing images ever put on film. Its become a classic, and was so popular in its day that, despite its brief running time (73 minutes), was often played as the main attraction. Simone Simon was now officially an A-list movie star.

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After the great success of Cat People, its producer Lewton was asked to do a sequel with the title The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Instead, Lewton and director Robert Wise made a gripping psychological thriller about a lonely child, with Simon (whose character had died at the end of the previous film) appearing as a friendly spirit. The film confused the hell out of audience even though the final film stands on its own today.

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Curse of the Cat People was basically a child’s tale on the perils of childhood, and this is where the confusion lies – in the title. Robert Wise, who co-directed the film, said they had screened the film for child psychologists who thought the film was terrific. He said that one of the psychologists then turned to him and said “However, what’s it doing with that horrible title?” This is how RKO ran the show back then (and not too much different than studios today trying to cash in while they can).

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Director, Guillermo Del Toro, a huge fan of the Lewton films, has attributed Curse of the Cat People as an inspiration for Pan’s Labyrinth, as both films are pretty much told to us through the eyes of a child. Lewton and Wise turned in one of the most unique and haunting non-horror movies ever. One that has influenced directors like Del Toro ever since. For me, it’s worth watching for Simone’s performance as a ghost. A feline-ghost, to be precise.

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An interesting footnote to Simone Simon’s story occurred when declassified records, which became available at the UK Public Records Office in 2002, revealed that during 1942 she was watched by the FBI because she was dating Dusko Popov, a “double agent” who worked for MI5. She gave him a loan of £10,000 late in 1942, before he left for Lisbon, and the couple broke up in 1943, with Simon never recovering the rather large loan. But a woman this beautiful needn’t worry about being alone for long. Another famous lover, George Gershwin the composer, wrote his famous tune  “Love Walked In” for Simone. Talk about making a lasting impression.

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Simone’s other movies in the US were minor, and at the end of the Second World War she returned to Paris, where she made her stage début in Le Square du Pérou (“Peru Square”, 1945). In 1947, she journeyed to the UK to star opposite Robert Newton in Lance Comfort’s powerful Temptation Harbour (1947). Adapted from a story by Georges Simenon, it’s a downbeat tale of a railway worker and a gold-digger. A stunningly beautiful gold-digger.  Simone would continue to work on stage and in minor movie roles in the ensuing decades, her last film being La Femme en bleu (“The Woman in Blue”), in 1973. The beautiful and captivating Simone died in her beloved Paris on February 23, 2005. I’ll always remember her as the original catwoman and an actress that transcended “B” movie vehicles to become an “A” list actress and a class-act in my book.

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This cheesecake shot is not of Simone Simon. I just couldn’t help myself. Happy Halloween!

Garbo: Her Run-In with Leo the Lion

23 Oct

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In 1925, Greta Garbo signed a contract with Louis B. Mayer’s MGM studios and came to the United States from Sweden with her director/mentor Maurice Stiller. She arrived in New York City where she languished for over 8 months before Mayer sent for her to come to Hollywood. The would-be movie star was already nervous and felt like she was being kept in a cage waiting for word on when and what she would be starting work on. It didn’t help that she could barely speak a word of English.

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In Spring 1926, Mayer finally got around to his newest star and ordered a publicity shoot to create some buzz for the Swedish Sphinx. Garbo was only 19 and must have been terrified when they drove her out to the Lion Farm where they kept Jackie the Lion (aka Leo the Lion) the MGM mascot and a quite large male. The photoshoot was conducted by Don Gillum, a renowned sport photographer at the time. You can tell in the above shot that Garbo isn’t too happy to be sitting beside the lion. And Jackie doesn’t look especially happy, either. He’s staring down the starlet as if she were trying to steal the scene.

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Garbo survived and like a true pro, agreed to mug it up with some lion cubs as well as act the lioness behind a chain-link fence. Fast forward 10 years and Garbo would be the queen of the silver screen. She would have her revenge on Louis B. Mayer and Leo the Lion by imposing a $5,000 a week salary on the notoriously stingy movie Mogul. Mayer would learn that Garbo would never again have to do anything she didn’t want to do and he would have to go along with it – or lose his biggest star for good.

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Garbo would learn that breaking into sound from silent pictures meant she could afford to keep quite. But that’s a story for another day…

Mia Farrow: More Than The Sum of Her Parts

20 Oct

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For those of you who have never seen it, tis’ the season to rent Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The titular horror movie of the late 60’s holds up better than almost any horror movie of it’s time, aside from Psycho (1960) of course. And the biggest and best reason for this is the singular, star-making performance of Roman Polanski’s leading lady – the lovely doe-eyed Mia Farrow. Long before Woody Allen, Mia was Mrs. Frank Sinatra, a TV star of Peyton Place and a relative unknown to movie audiences. But that was all about to change in the blink of a devil-baby’s eye.

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I rented Rosemary’s Baby again after having not seen the movie in over ten years. Quaint by today’s extreme horror movie standards, the film has nonetheless retained its slow-boil tension up to the still terrifying reveal (I’m not going to spoil the ending but it’s pretty hard not to figure it out early on). But aside from the sheer craft of Polanski’s horror-show is the real reason to watch a movie that is over 47-years old: The beautiful Mia Farrow. This is an actress in a role that allows her to use every ounce of her formidable talent, spirit and energy. She is so compelling, so convincing and so apparently vulnerable that she draws the audience in with every fiber of her being.

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Mia’s greatest feature (in my humble opinion) are her eyes. She has these large, gumball-sized blue eyes that are made all the larger by her famous, fashion-statement on steroids Pixie cut. Ms. Farrow recent corrected the historians who attributed the iconic cut to Vidal Sassoon (Mia’s character even attributes the cut to him in the movie). However, it was Farrow herself that cut her own hair within-an-inch of its life and caught the attention of the world with its fashion-forward playfulness. Granted, Mia’s bone-structure and light features make her face glow to begin with but add the Pixie cut and her face and EYES are the main attraction in Rosemary’s Baby.

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The duality of Mia’s persona in the film is that a woman who looks so frail, so frightened can be so strong. She is all of 23 in the movie and her face literally glows (with youthfulness, and then illness as the movie progresses thanks to white make-up that Polanski had her wear to give her a sickly pallor). The young actress was famously married to Frank Sinatra at the time she took the role. He didn’t want her to do the movie and it’s a credit to Mia that she told her old man to go to hell. The subsequent divorce made the way for Mia to become a major star in her own right and no longer hidden in the shadow of the Chairman of the Board.

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Mia went on to become as big a fashion icon as she was a movie star. Like Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark before her – the hidden strength of her character shown through in her movie persona – a perfect meld that stands the test of time even as most movies of the 60’s appear so dated because of the fashion, music and style of the times. Mia’s personality is of the 60’s but transcends the time period because of the allegory inherent in Rosemary’s Baby; that of a young mother fearing for the safety of her unborn child as well as her own – surrounded by evil in a world gone mad. Maybe that’s why it resonates so well today.

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This Halloween, treat yourself and the kids with this amazing, elevated horror movie. The thrills and chills are tame next to today’s average video-game let alone horror movie. And be warned, there is some nudity (albeit of a beautiful young woman in her absolute prime). But if you want to be spellbound by one of the most amazing screen performances ever captured, mesmerized by a woman who is more than the sum of her (movie) parts before or since – watch Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.

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Even before the climax at the end, you’ll know why the devil just couldn’t keep his claws off Mia with those deep, giant blue eyes of hers.

Garbo’s Last Stand: New Novel Cover Reveal

13 Oct

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Excited to share cover of my very first novel out this December 8th by Fiery Seas Publishing!

Garbo’s Last Stand – a novel

James Main is stuck making cable documentaries in LA when he places an ad looking for anyone still above ground who knew glamorous movie goddess Greta Garbo. He’s delighted when salty old tabloid reporter Seth Moseley replies with the promise of an untold story of why the reclusive star left Hollywood at the height of her power and fame.

A big thanks to Tom Sylvan for the gorgeous cover design and Misty Williams at Fiery Seas for all her support!

Hope you enjoy the cover and look forward to telling you more about the book as we get closer to the release date!

Jane Greer: Smoking in Bed

28 Sep

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Jane Greer grows on you. At least she did on me ever since I saw her in Out of the Past (1947). I can see why Howard Hughes fell for her and fell for her hard. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Little baby Greer first started her career by winning beauty contests. And as a teenager, her good looks had come into full bloom and an attractive contralto voice made her a desirable addition to any band. Greer was singing with big bands (most notably Enric Madriguera’s orchestra in Latin Club Del Rio in Washington, D.C.) before she was out of her teens.

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The legend goes that age 15, Jane suffered an attack of palsy that left her face partially paralyzed. She claimed that it was through facial exercises to overcome the paralysis that she learned the efficacy of facial expression in conveying human emotion, a skill she was renowned for using in her acting. Plus, it made her hard as nails and when she didn’t like something or someone, well, good luck trying to win her over.

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Howard Hughes spotted Greer modeling on the cover of Life magazine of June 8, 1942 and sent her to Hollywood to become an actress. Now this is where everything gets interested with Greer, starting with the Life photo shoot. Here is a series of photos taken from that session.

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Greer is beautiful and can pour on the cheesecake better than any of them. I especially love her negligee.

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But, true to Jane’s nature she can’t take this stuff, or herself, so seriously and breaks into a play grin that makes her more sexy than ever – IMO.

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But then she gets back to business after a cigarette break.

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And the final version of that life magazine cover is her big break into the business.

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Jane married Rudy Vallee, her senior by 22 years, in 1943. Hughes lent out the actress to RKO to star in many films, including Dick Tracy (1945), Out of the Past (1947), They Won’t Believe Me (1947), and the comedy/suspense film The Big Steal (1949), alongside Out of the Past co-star Robert Mitchum.

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Out of the Past with favorite co-star was a huge hit for both up and coming stars.

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Jane was at first intimidated by her hunky co-star but she quickly got over it after getting to know Mitchum. For all his tough-guy reputation, Robert was one of the nicest, most intelligent and most giving actors who rose to fame in noir.

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Both stars became great friends for the rest of their lives and would star again with each other on screen.

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But it was Out of the Past that anyone who wants to see Greer and Mitchum perform at the top of their form.

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And see Jane Greer as the defining femme fatale that would influence so many others.

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Greer was also the first woman to sue Howard Hughes and RKO Pictures because she didn’t like the films he was putting her in. And here’s the best part – she won. And here’s the even better part, Hughes loved her so much that he kept using her.

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Jane was a true original and one of the first femme fatales onscreen. Offscreen, she told it like it was and played by her own rules as well. Makes you wonder how art does imitate life sometimes.

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Especially when both are starring a leading lady as beautiful and talented as Jane Greer!

 

Sophia Loren: Dangerous Curves

21 Sep

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Sophia Loren is one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen.

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Her exotic looks are all natural and she was happy to share them with the world.

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An exotic import, Sophia has a larger than life persona that she flaunted to maximum effect.

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But what I love her for is her class mixed with sex appeal, able to play one off the other.

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Even when lampooning her own public image, Sophia did it with grace.

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I especially like this shot of her. So stunning!

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And this one. How she could turn a corny glamor shoot into art I’ll never know.

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But even dressed down and wind-swept she was beautiful!

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Happy Birthday, Sophia! And many more…

Veronica Lake: Peek-a-Boo

20 Sep

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Veronica Lake is one of the most iconic movie goddesses of the 1940’s. And leave it to several men to try and take credit for her trademark Peek-a-Boo hairstyle that made her instantly recognizable the world over. Veronica’s first appearance on screen was for RKO, playing a small role among several coeds in the film SORORITY HOUSE (1939). Similar roles followed, including All Women Have Secrets and Dancing Co-Ed. During the making of Sorority House, director John Farrow said he first noticed how her hair always covered her right eye, creating an air of mystery about her and enhancing her natural beauty. But this wouldn’t be the first or last time someone took credit for discovering Lake’s unique look.

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While still a teenager, Lake was introduced to the Paramount producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. He changed her name to Veronica Lake because he said her surname suited her blue eyes. But it wasn’t enough to make Lake a household name, not yet at least, and RKO subsequently dropped her contract. But a small role in the comedy Forty Little Mothers (1940) brought unexpected attention. And in 1941, Veronica was signed to a long-term contract with Paramount Pictures. Her star was ascending but it would take another supposed man to rocket her to superstardom.

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Lake next starred opposite Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels (1941). But Lake’s breakthrough role was in the 1941 war drama I Wanted Wings. The film was a major hit in which Lake played the second female lead. Hollywood lore (or more likely studio PR men) wrote that it was during the filming of I Wanted Wings that Lake developed her signature look. Lake’s long blonde hair accidentally fell over her right eye during a take and created a “peek-a-boo” effect. The hairstyle became Lake’s trademark and was widely copied by women.  Lake then followed up with starring roles in more popular movies, including This Gun for Hire (opposite Alan Ladd), I Married a Witch, and So Proudly We Hail!.  Lake was considered one of the most reliable box office draws in Hollywood. At the peak of her popularity, she earned $4,500 a week.

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Lake became known for playing opposite actor Alan Ladd, which began with This Gun for Hire. Initially, the couple was teamed together because Ladd was just 5 feet 5 inches tall and the only actress then on the Paramount lot short enough to pair with him was Lake, who stood just 4 feet 11 1⁄2 inches. They would make four more films together including the film noirs The Glass Key (1942), The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Saigon. Amazing how things happen in Tinseltown, right? But they did have a fiery on-screen chemistry, even though Ladd called Lake a bitch to work with. No doubt Lake was one of the original divas – but there’s always two sides to every Hollywood story.

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During World War II, Lake changed her trademark peek-a-boo hairstyle at the urging of the government to encourage women working in war industry factories to adopt more practical, safer hairstyles. Although the change helped to decrease accidents involving women getting their hair caught in machinery, doing so may have damaged Lake’s career. She also became a popular pin-up girl for soldiers during World War II and traveled throughout the United States to raise money for war bonds. Unfortunately, Lake’s true story does not have a happy ending. She fell out of favor in Hollywood because of her alcoholism and other mental health issues. But alas, I will always remember Lake in her signature film noir roles. She was a screen siren of the tallest order and, at the end of the day, we’re to buy the myth and not the reality of Hollywood sex goddesses. In my opinion, Lake was a talented actress who fell victim to the fame of her own hairstyle. It’s a cautionary tale for any talented actress trying to break through today. Stay true to yourself, and even when you do break through – don’t buy the hype!

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Veronica Lake will be remembered as a beautiful woman who influenced an entire generation of women and how they wore their hair. She just happened to be a talented actress, too. And for this, we’ll always love her place in cinematic history!

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One more crazy Hollywood pin-up photo for the road!

Shirley Eaton: Pure Gold

14 Sep

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Fifty years ago Ian Fleming’s James Bond was a brand new franchise for MGM. Sean Connery is, in my humble opinion, the best Bond of them all and not just because he was the first. He was debonaire, cool and (true to the novels and the time period) a complete and total sexist pig. Now, I’m not advocating for sexist pigs and I’m certainly not glorifying the objectification of beautiful women. But in 1964 when GOLDFINGER was made the Mad Men sensibilities were very much in full swing and Bond personified for many men (if you had money, looks and opportunity) how a playboy conducted himself. And for Goldfinger, the producers spared no expense surrounding their star spy with a small army of beautiful females, the most memorable of which was British Actress Shirley Eaton.

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Shirley was a beautiful actress with a stunning face and physique. She personified what would become universally-known at a Bond Girl: a surefire ticket to Hollywood stardom if there ever was one. However, fifty-years ago being a Bond Girl didn’t necessarily hold the weight it does today. Ursula Andres will always hold a place in Bond lore as the first Bond Girl. But it wasn’t ’til Shirley that “Bond Girl” became ubiquitous with sex symbol akin to the “It Girl” moniker bestowed the original Vamp, Theda Bara (other film historians would later wrongly attribute the first-occurrence of the term to Clara Bow).

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Both Ursula and Shirley were beautiful, Nordic-looking blondes who weren’t shy about showing off their svelte, athletic bodies. But only one of them was to cement her iconic status as a Bond Girl by being covered (literally) in gold paint. Yes, that’s right, folks. Anybody who hasn’t seen Goldfinger can’t truly appreciate what painting an already beautiful woman from head to toe in metallic gold paint will do to overload a man’s senses. The visual effect was so mesmerizing that Shirley Eaton quickly became the single most iconic image of a goddess captured on film since Greta Garbo. Ironically, MGM had covered Garbo  in Silver Make-Up #1 (a formula specifically created for her by Max Factor) to make her ultra-luminous in her silent era movies. So much so that Garbo became the technical center of her movies; everything was lit to look dim in comparison to her glowing face.

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For Goldfinger, the producers took every precaution to ensure that Shirley would not asphyxiate under the heavy coat of body-paint. If you look closely at the production shot above, you’ll see that the actress’s stomach was not covered in paint because she would be lying face down when Bond finds her in the big reveal shot (below). You see, in the movie the evil Goldfinger dipped poor Shirley in real gold as a fun, inventive way to off her. Sure to piss off Bond and lead to a climactic, final battle to avenge Bond lovely sex object. The resulting effect was movie magic of the tallest order and images from the scene were splattered in magazines and newspapers throughout the world – making Shirley a star overnight.

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In 1964, the American censors were having heart palpitations over the naked body covered in nothing but body paint. That’s when it was decided that Shirley’s bum needed to be covered. The British censors had no such puritanical queasiness. They were much more upset over the exceedingly violent storyline. That said, the English did take exception to the name of another female character in the film – the one played by actress Honor Blackman called “Pussy Galore”. They were adamant that the character be renamed “Kitty Galore” except for one fortuitous day when none other than Prince Philip visiting the British-based set and had a photo op with the young actress. When the photo hit the English newspapers the caption read “Puss and Prince”. After that, the name stuck and the censors backed down.

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Shirley’s star rose quickly after the release of Goldfinger but for the most part her movie roles were relegated to the sexpot, cheesecake variety that is typical of the time period. But so what? Her role as the Golden Girl of the Movies was secured and even though watching Goldfinger today is by most accounts a quaint affair – seeing beautiful Shirley lying on a white silk bed covered in gold still has the visual punch to wake the most tired libido. She evokes the stirrings one would imagine the goddesses down through the ages have done in oil paint, marble and stone. Maybe the makers of Bond were just reducing Shirley to a sex symbol, one that appealed to even the lowest common denominator. But I like to think that the result, whether intended or not, subconscious or conscious – was for a brief second raised to object d’art; a living, breathing, life-size work of art. One that is held in the mind long after the original context has fallen away.

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Then again, maybe it is mostly about sex and objectifying a beautiful woman by spraying her with body-paint. Either way, I’ll never forget the first time I saw Shirley Eaton on my family’s 12-inch Sony Color TV. I think I was about 8-years old when Goldfinger was replayed as the Saturday Night Movie and my three brothers and I fought for position in front of the tiny screen. And then there she was in all her golden-goddess glory, beamed into our little suburban home and imprinted on my frontal lobes forever. Long before I knew what sex even meant, I knew what I saw was beautiful and that I liked it…a lot. Miss Eaton left an impression alright – one that remains vivid to this day as a movie moment so iconic as to be pure gold.

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And I’m glad to say Shirley is still with us to this day! You can visit her on her fan website at http://www.shirleyeaton.net

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Don’t forget to drop her a line and tell her what her most famous movie role meant to you!

 

 

 

Belinda Lee: Lady Noir

24 Aug

 

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Fate is fickle, especially when it comes to movie actresses. One day it shines upon an up and coming young actress, the next she is relegated to “sexpot” roles only to die young before her star ever ascends. Hollywood lore is littered with such tragic tales of would-be starlets. I met such a blonde beauty the other night in the B-movie 50’s noir BLACKOUT. And the blonde beauty in question is British actress Belinda Lee.

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Belinda had the movie star looks to be huge. She had the acting chops too. Not that she got the chance to flex them very much. Through a confluence of events and misfortune, Belinda was never given the shot I believe she deserved. And like so many actresses throughout time, her time in the limelight was relegated to cheap Noirs and, later, Sword & Sandal epics. But at least we have Blackout, the best Noir that Hammer Films (yes, the same studio famous for Christopher Lee Dracula movies and other such B-movie Monster cult classics) made in the mid-50’s. Starring opposite the equally relegated-to-oblivion star Dane Clark.

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In the movie, Belinda plays the daughter of a murdered millionaire who may or may not be behind his death. She plays the role convincingly enough, beguiling poor Dane with her beauty into investigating who the real killer may be – all the while twisting and turning his guts over like any self-respecting blonde bombshell with a secret will do. What I liked about this movie is that it had an original plot, but more importantly their was chemistry between Belinda and Dane. I actually cared about what happened to these characters and wanted to see them end up together in the end, even if she was bad for his health. Hell, isn’t that the point of most noirs – even when you win the girl you lose?

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The film was shot for nickels in the streets of London and did little for Belinda’s career. And try as she might to be taken seriously, her looks were her worst enemy. She would continue to work but in increasingly cheesier supporting roles in some of the more tawdry and forgettable technicolor extravaganzas. So, what is a would-be serious actress to do in her mid-twenties stuck in a rut? Belinda moved to Italy, of course. But instead of attracting quality material – instead Belinda ended up working in tawdry Italian B-movies, speaking in a language that wasn’t even her own. Before long, her marriage crumbled and she was implicated in an affair with a government official that would end his career and send her flying off to America to ply her trade stateside.

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Belinda had just wrapped a film in Las Vegas and was on her way to a vacation in Los Angeles when she was killed in a car crash in San Bernardino at the age of 26. The would be star never had the chance to strut her stuff on Hollywood & Vine. I’d like to think that she could have reinvented herself in classier fare – the kind of vehicles that made Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr household names. Alas, it was not to be for beautiful Belinda. All we have of her legacy now is a page on Wikipedia, some hard to find films and the above-par noir classic BLACKOUT.

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Then again, how many people are remembered at all – let alone have their moment in a dark, moody murder mystery set in a turbulent post-WWII noir. In a way, Belinda was luckier than most who shoot for the stars and come up just short. She had the chance, she just never got the breaks but will always be remembered for her beauty and a few moments of celluloid gold. And maybe, just maybe, blogs like this one will keep her candle burning in the pantheon of near-forgotten starlets. A reminder of how much work goes into making an actress a star but without luck and the breaks necessary to open doors – comes and goes like a freight train in the night.

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I enjoyed my one night with Belinda very much and I encourage any film aficionado, cinefile or anglophile for that matter to seek out Belinda Lee in BLACKOUT for their own night of dark pleasure. She won’t disappoint. Just remember never to turn your back on her.

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And one more look of beautiful Belinda Lee for the road.

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