Vera Miles: Hitchcock Blonde with Brains

22 Mar

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Vera Miles was beautiful. Vera Miles was talented. Vera Miles was not to be messed with. The only reason why Vera Miles never became a household name is because the man that intended to make her such, Alfred Hitchcock, demanded her complete loyalty and admiration. Unlike other Hitchcock blondes, however, Vera was not one to take any shit from the director. That is, not in the copious amounts he piled onto his other actresses with impunity.

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If you mention Vera Miles today, most people will need context to remember this blonde beauty. That comes in one tidy, six letter word: PSYCHO (1960). Vera played Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) concerned sister who helps track down her killer in easily one of the most shocking film reveals of all-time. The role is iconic today, but back in the day it was a thankless role for an actress who was a star in her own right. Vera was simply fulfilling her contractual obligation to Hitchcock, who no doubt cast her as a way to rub salt in any wounds left over from their meteoric fallout. Ironic, then, how it is the role that Vera is best remembered for to this day.

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Very came to attention in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (1956) and was a minor revelation in the movie. But again it wasn’t a major role that would jettison Vera to stardom. Those opportunities were to come, however, after Hitchcock saw some early footage of the movie and likened the statuesque blonde with a strong constitution and a magnetic screen presence to his ideal of a leading lady.

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Here’s Vera and the ever stoic John Wayne from THE SEARCHERS.

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THE WRONG MAN (1956) was Hitchcock and Vera’s first movie together. She was fantastic opposite Henry Fonda in the documentary-style suspense movie. But it was only to be a testing-ground for Hitchcock to groom is bombshell protege into the kind of movie star he envisioned for all his female leads: Blonde, virtuous, always standing by her man and, ultimately conforming to his egomanical will. The fact that Hitchcock misjudged Vera Miles so badly in regards to his domineering ways is curious. Of course, she was an actress with great looks and talent. But she also had brains and willpower to resist his creepy advances and perverted sense of entitlement. It was only a matter of time before the two would come to blows, metaphorically-speaking.

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A fairly-silly publicity shot for THE WRONG MAN with Fonda and Miles.

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Vera and Hitch on the set of THE WRONG MAN, circa 1956. Their professional relationship would deteriorate from here on.

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Hitchcock never spared any expense when it came to his leading ladies and Vera was no exception. Though she was married by 1958 to Gordon Scott and already had two children, Hitchcock still considered her his property. He obsessed over her looks both in public and private and determined that she should only ever be clothed in White, Black or Grey tones. This was recorded for posterity in the production stills for VERTIGO (1958) in which Vera was to star opposite Jimmy Stewart. For anyone who has ever seen the movie, the role required Vera to be the focus of an obsessive man who would ultimately lead to her death. A smart woman who didn’t need to be told how autobiographical the material was for Hitchcock, Vera either consciously or unconsciously decided to become pregnant with her third child before production could begin. Enraged, Hitch had to recast the role, finding Kim Novak at the last moment. I have to confess that Kim Novak is one of the best casting choices in all of film when it came to VERTIGO. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role so well and that includes Vera. Funny how everything worked out for the best but Hitch would never forgive Vera for her transgression.

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When it came time for Vera to fulfill her contract with Hitchcock it was for easily his most iconic and successful film, PSYCHO (1960). What I love is that Vera considered the role a walk-on part to get Hitch the hell out of her life. Still very beautiful and at the top of her game, she underplayed the role brilliantly – making her scream at the end when she finds MOTHER in the fruit-cellar all the more horrifying. Vera is perfect casting and will always be remembered for this reaction. Once again, fate played a hand in making film history. It would be the last time actress and director would work together. And both of them can thank each other for cementing their places in cinematic and pop culture history.

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Interestingly enough, Vera’s blonde locks were already shorn for another production when Hitchcock beckoned her to play in Psycho. She had to wear a wig in addition to frumpy clothes that Hitchcock no doubt tried to humiliate the actress with. But true to form, Vera rose above petty grievances and turned in a pivotal performance, grounding the second-half of the film after Janet Leigh’s untimely departure ala the famous shower scene.

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Very would go on to play opposite Jimmy Stewart in WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962). A classic western, she turned in another sympathetic performance that would further confirm her acting chops in addition to beauty.

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Vera Miles roles in Hollywood productions took their natural course for actresses of a certain age, though she would continue to work in smaller pictures and television over the ensuing decades. But what I love about Vera as much as her beauty and talent is her strong spirit and ability to take and ultimately leave Tinseltown on her own terms. She never regretted losing the role in VERTIGO because she said she got a son out of the bargain. She was too grounded, too smart it seemed to take the kind of crap megalo-manical directors like Hitchcock required their actresses take in return for becoming immortal on film. But in her own way, Vera Miles did become immortal, albeit in a smaller-role that was her way of fulfilling a contract to a man that gave her the creeps. And now that everyone knows, thanks to Tippi Hedren another Hitchcock blonde, just how creepy and abusive Hitch was to his talent – it seems like a very smart proposition indeed for Vera to have vamoosed when she did from the director’s grasp. Vera is a testament to women who work on their own terms and take their lumps, succeeding in the face of adversity in an old boy’s club that exists to this day.

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One more look at that class act in the fruit-cellar about to scream her brains out. It doesn’t get any better than this, does it?

 

FDR: President was Wannabe Screenwriter

20 Mar

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That’s right, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our 32nd President (1933-1945), wanted to be a screenwriter before he got into politics. Here’s the article from 1947 illustrating how Paramount Pictures went about letting down gently the future Leader of the free world.

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Monica Bellucci: The New Bond Girl is a Woman

15 Mar

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I’ve always loved Monica for her classic yet voluptuous beauty. She is considered one of the most beautiful women in the world since she made the scene over thirty years ago now. And in keeping with her stature, Monica will soon be making her debut as the world’s oldest bond girl. At 50, Monica is by far the oldest actress to don the title, shattering the carefully constructed image of an aging James Bond while his myriad love interests stay twenty-three for eternity.

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Granted, Monica Bellucci is no ordinary 50 year old. Quite the opposite, in that she grows ever more beautiful with every passing year. In actress years, Hollywood would have put her out to pasture if it wasn’t for the fact that she is more stunning than actresses half her age. She wears her years with an incredible resiliency, to the point where her age is one of her main attractors. Not only is she comfortable in her own skin, Monica exudes confidence and mature sexuality that a twenty-two year old actress could never compete with, no matter who she is.

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Monica Bellucci’s career has spanned several decades now. She’s taken on a wide-ranging spectrum of roles, some of them better-written than others. But what is consistent about all of them is what Ms. Bellucci brings to every role: a poise, sensuousness and presence that makes the camera fall in love with her every time she steps into frame. Your eye is drawn to her face immediately. Her large brown eyes are so expressive they seem to radiate from within. Her body so statuesque and generous in curves and proportion you cannot but think of her as a classical beauty for the ages. But Monica’s greatest asset is her ability to translate a vulnerability and accessibility juxtaposing her own intense female beauty. Her beauty does not intimidate as much as exude the classical “come hither” of Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner.

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The announcement by the producers of the next James Bond movie, titled SPECTRE, that Ms. Bellucci would be the next Bond Girl was applauded around the world. Finally, Bond was growing up and going to become involved with a woman his own age. It was a smart move for an aging franchise. And the best part about it was the fact that the producer’s knew they weren’t sacrificing anything in reaching out to an older actress. In fact, they scored a coup in getting Monica because not only is she gorgeous, but she has the reputation of classing-up every project she is in. And, last but not least, she is at the end of the day a seasoned, fantastic actress with a worldwide fan base. So smart, guys.

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Bringing Monica to a new generation of movie goers who may not be familiar with her is going to be a genuine treat. I have the distinct feeling that leading up to the release of SPECTRE, we’re going to see a lot of Ms. Bellucci in social media and traditional print. Because she bridges the gap between the younger generations and the ones that come before. Because her beauty is so magnetic and intoxicating. And because we need an older woman with timeless beauty to break the internet next.

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Monica is as close as we can get in today’s youth-obsessed society to a bonafide sex goddess in the vein of Greta Garbo, Marlena Dietrich and Hedy Lammarr. She is not afraid to show skin and brings a European sensibility to her nude scenes. Never vulgar or gratuitous, Monica can hold your attention without saying a word. Your eyes gaze upon her and are immediately transported to another place and time. She is, in short, a movie star in the classic sense. And one that new generations will not be able to get enough of once they discover her in the greatest mainstream movie franchise ever created, that of James Bond.

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About the greatest compliment I can extend to Ms. Bellucci is that she doesn’t need to be in James Bond. In fact, they need her more than she needs them. Her career and reputation have already ensured her place in film history as one of those rare beauties that defy stereotype and typecasting. But why I think she accepted the role playing in such a commercial venture is the opportunity to show that not all Bond Girls need to be vapid, twenty-year old after thoughts for James to dally with and dispose of like his other overpriced toys. What Monica brings is a Bond Woman who can not only carry her own – but take or leave Bond himself. And what could be more attractive than that!

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I’m very much looking forward to seeing this new iteration of Bond Woman. I can’t wait to see what Monica does with the role and how Daniel Craig’s James Bond must deal with a mature, commanding and ultimately domineering beauty with brains. It is a fascinating plot-wrinkle (no pun intended) to see him hold his own with a woman his own age. No small task for the Peter Pan of Spy Movies. But I have a feeling Craig’s Bond will grow up a little in this next outing, thanks to Monica. And have a lot of fun doing it, of course. As will the audience.

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One more shot of the unbelievably-gorgeous Monica Bellucci to hold you over while we wait for her appearance in SPECTRE!

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman: Oscar Royalty

22 Feb

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Tonight I’ll be watching the Oscars like I always do with a sense of nostalgia for the glamorous stars of the past. A time when the Oscars were the biggest night in movies, the stars all congregated next to each other with their colleagues, handlers, friends, rivals and family members. And among them all, there is always the reigning power couple. Like them or not, Brad and Angelina are the reigning star-coupling. But for me, they can’t hold a candle to the once star-crossed duo of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

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Looking back now they seemed impossibly young and impossibly good-looking. They seemed destined for one-another, in love and in-like for all to see and envy. It’s a toss-up which one of them was more beautiful. But as far as talent, I think both Paul and Joanne were a very well-balanced couple. The fact that they endured and stayed together is even more a testament to their ability to put their egos, and the entertainment business in general, in check.

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They always seemed to have a sense of humility about their position in Hollywood. One that stemmed out of an understanding of just how ridiculous a lot of the industry is, how insular successful actors become, and a desire to not be anything more than what they were – working actors. It made them even more appealing to their fans and that much more infuriating to their detractors (the few they had).

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Paul and Joanne were smart folks, no doubt. They knew their star value and were able to parlay their fame into more then fortune, more than just a superficial affectation of movie star immortality. And because they gave back, they were role-models for stars that came after them. People who may not have had a philanthropic bone in their bodies but learned, like we all do, through mimicking our heroes, what it means to become a real hero to people. To help people you don’t know who are less fortunate than yourself, through no fault of their own.

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Joanne and Paul seemed to be the perfect couple and made their bond look effortless, at least in front of the cameras. I was never fortunate enough to meet them and confess that it doesn’t really make a difference to me how they were behind close doors. Like any couple, I’m sure they had their issues, arguments and hang-ups. To me, what’s important is that they really seemed to get each other, to like each other and provide a loving example for the rest of us mere mortals to strive for. That was their role, like it or not, as a power couple. To reign with benevolence and lead by their mutual sense of good will. And they pulled it off handsomely.

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Newman and Woodward were stars in their own right, both winning Oscars and both pursuing roles that challenged them as the artists they were. Along the way, they pulled off the almost unbelievable feat of getting better looking as they grew older. Paul’s blue eyes became deeper as his face filled out and Joanne’s porcelain-complexion seemingly defied age. They were comfortable with each other, comfortable in their own skin and comfortable in the legacy they built together as philanthropists. Their Newman’s Own Foundation has raised millions and will continue to do so for generations to come. Long after kids today will forget Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Three Faces of Eve – Newman’s Own will be in their refridgerators and on the dinner table, giving back and continuing a legacy that will always be part of Oscar’s yesteryear glory.

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I’ll watch the Oscars tonight and enjoy the spectacle, the glamor and reflect back on when the stars had faces. A time when the stars seemed to be a little loftier, a little higher in the sky and a lot easier to look up to as a result. Maybe it’s because I was younger, shorter and more gullible. Or maybe we’ve lost something that we need desperately both in Hollywood and the rest of the world today: a sense that people who are much for fortunate and successful than the rest of us – care and genuinely want to help out the little people who put them there.

Tippi Hedren: Animal Attraction

19 Jan

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Tippi Hedren is a Hollywood Icon for two reasons: First, she starred in two of Alfred Hitchcock’s strangest films – “The Birds” the precursor to the modern disaster movie and the psychological thriller “Marnie” and; she is the most famous survivor of Hitchcock’s obsessive abuse of the actress. As strong as she is beautiful, Tippi’s legacy is not so much about her impact on film but leading a full life in spite of Hollywood’s tolerance for megalomaniacs who treat talent like cattle instead of human beings. I’m happy to report that today is her 85th birthday, and one we can celebrate for an actress that is more than the sum of her movie parts.

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Hitchcock was Tippi’s big break into the movies, that is true. He picked her out of near-obscurity (she was a model and did commercials) to be cast as the lead for The Birds (1963). Ever the obsessive, Hitch spent a lot of time and money on grooming his ingenue in the way that he wasn’t able to with Grace Kelly and Kim Novak. Tippi, on the other hand, was primed for his victimization due in part to the fact that he signed her to a 7-year contract. In the beginning, he did what he could to control her from eating and drinking what he told her, to dressing her both on and off the set. One need only watch Hitchcock’s Vertigo with Jimmy Stewart to understand the dynamic between director and actress.

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Tippi was as beautiful as Grace and more inexperienced than Novak (who was also married which apparently made her off-limits to Hitchcock’s advances). But what Tippi lacked in acting chops she more than made up for in tenacity. She is as strong as they come and literally survived The Birds shoot, suffering total exhaustion by the end when the director spent a week having his crew literally throw live birds at her. She deserved every accolade and award The Birds brought her. If only her experience with Hitchcock ended there.

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Marnie (1964) is one of Hitchcock’s mental breakdown’s caught on film. Not in the sense that Psycho (1960) was of a man obsessed with his mother, but of a director obsessed with his actress. Tippi didn’t feel she was up to the demanding role and told her director so. But Hitch insisted and proceeded to unravel himself over the course of filming. To the point where the legendary director lost total control of himself and began to make overt sexual demands of the young actress.

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To her credit, Tippi told the director in no uncertain terms to get lost. But that was after months of abuse and isolation at the hands of the director. She finally had to force the issue and deliberately called Hitch a “fatso” on the set in front of cast and crew. She knew this was the only way to get him off of her. She was right. For the rest of the production schedule Hitchcock would not talk to her, giving her direction through an intermediary. But Hitchcock would seek revenge for his unrequited sexual advances and keep Tippi under contract, while forbidding her to work with anyone else in town. He blacklisted Tippi for the next two years, until selling her off to Universal Pictures.

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Tippi’s movie career would never recover from Hitchcock’s wrath, though she kept her abuse at his hand under wraps for the next 30+ years. Her victimization was all the more poignant for the fact that her daughter, Melanie Griffith, became a star in her own right and was a major player in the 1980’s. Tippi certainly had opportunities to trash Hitchcock on numerous occasions after his death. But the statuesque blonde took the higher road and did not speak of her experiences until a writer asked her about it for two books he wrote on Hitchcock, which became the basis for the movie “The Girl” (2012). Tippi has been subject to several attacks since for blemishing the name of Hitchcock. True to form, the classy dame that is Hedren has stuck to her story and anybody with half a brain can see that, if anything, she’s downplayed the fatman’s insane victimization of her now over 50 years before.

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But Tippi’s true legacy is that of animal rights activist and advocate. She has always had an affinity for animals and is happiest when fighting for their rights. She opened a big cat preserve named in 1983 and has spent the last several decades rescuing big cats as well as other endangered species. She even had a lion stay with her family as Melanie grew up and the pictures are amazing as much as they are inspirational.

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Who has the bigger mane?

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Family day at the pool.

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The Birds is one of those films that has become legendary for what went on behind the camera as much as in front of it. I still enjoy the film for bringing Tippi Hedren to us, even though she had to go through hell and back to be in it. As it happens, she is a natural in front of the camera and probably would have had a career without Hitchcock. The price she paid for working with the Master of Suspense was high, obviously, but it also earned her a place in film history and her own iconic immortality. I wonder how many other actresses would have gladly taken her place, knowing what she went through. Few, I imagine, would have come through it with their dignity (and sanity) intact as much as Tippi Hedren has. A true survivor by any estimation.

 

Sharon Tate: Gone But Never Forgotten

21 Nov

Sharon Tate Visiting The Set Of Rosemary's Baby

 

One of the advantages of having older brothers is being introduced to pop culture from earlier generations that you would not otherwise be exposed to. This was true for music (Blonde, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Boston), film (Apocalypse Now, Clockwork Orange, Monty Python’s Holy Grail) and, above all, iconic beautiful women. In the last category, my brothers did not discriminate: they had posters and calendars of blondes, brunettes, redheads, even a beautiful bald woman from some far off African tribe. I knew quite a few of them by name – Debbie Harry, Isabella Rosselini, Barbi Benton, Candice Bergen, Patricia Rhomberg, Nastassja Kinski…but one day I stumbled across one staring down at me from my brother’s slanted attic bedroom wall.

“Who’s the blonde?” I asked.

“”Sharon Tate.”

“Who’s that?”

“She was an actress.”

“Was?”

“Don’t bother me.”

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The answer sufficed for a couple months. But then every time I went into my older brother’s room, my eyes were drawn back up to the beautiful face staring down at me with those large, brown eyes. I was young enough that the concept of this young, luminous and vibrant woman was no longer living didn’t fully compute. I naively believed that only old people died. I asked my brother again.

“How did she die?”

“She was murdered.”

“What? Why?”

“She was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

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The wrong place at the wrong time. It still didn’t compute. Was she caught up in some natural disaster? Another couple months passed and one day I stumbled across my brother’s paperback copy of “Helter Skelter”. Dog-eared and stained from God knows what, I opened the book and began reading about the horrible Manson Family Murders that occurred on August 9, 1969. How Sharon, married to film director Roman Polanski and 8 and a half months pregnant – begged for her unborn baby’s life, to no avail. I stared up at the woman’s face and became enraged for her. For the senseless loss of not one but two innocent lives.

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Decades later, I still remember that first great rush of indignant rage I felt when I was young. The sense of loss of what could have been for a stunning young woman who seemed to be so full of life. Sharon had had a burgeoning film and TV career (she almost played the lead in Rosemary’s Baby) but more she had a baby with a man she was wild about and a future bright with possibilities. Until, one night she had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time for a bunch of murderous imbeciles being led by a frustrated, wannabe musician loser. Manson is nothing more than a garden variety sociopath and it still infuriates me that he remains above ground making news today when he should really be six feet under. But then I realize even he serves a purpose; he exists to remind us that victim’s of violent crime must have at least as many rights as their killers do under our laws. And thanks to Sharon’s late mother Doris, sisters Patti and Debra the victim’s of violent crime who cannot speak for themselves have a say through their family members, especially in parole hearings for the likes of criminals like Manson. I know while they are alive – he will never be free.

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Sharon Tate was a beautiful young woman who by all accounts was a gentle, kind and generous soul. It still doesn’t make sense to the young child I was that such a life could be snuffed out for nothing at all. But it does give the adult I now am some solace that her existence and that of her unborn child’s still has relevance to this day. She wanted to be a star in her time and I believe she would have been if fate hadn’t intervened and given her life a different role. If we lived in a perfect world she would still be with us as would her son and Manson would be long gone and forgotten. But the world is what it is and for many of my older brother’s era, the 60’s officially ended on that summer day in August, 1969. And some day soon, Manson will be gone but Sharon’s legacy will go on. Not as a victim but as a woman who died a hero and whose death gave birth to thousands of victim’s having the ability to speak from beyond the grave for what is right and just.

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One of my favorite photos of the beautiful Sharon Tate.

History in Action: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

9 Nov

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I love this period picture from 1988 because of its timelessness. Set in pre-Revolution Paris, Glenn Close is at the top of her game playing the Marquise de Merteuil, who plots revenge against her ex-lover, the Comte de Gercourt, who has ended their relationship. Close’s character is gleefully amoral (her favorite word is “cruelty”) and amuses herself by manipulating men out of boredom, and resentment over the subservient status of women in 16th-century French aristocratic society. You couldn’t ask for a better role, written by Christopher Hampton, adapted for the screen by his play based on the novel by Pierre-Amboise-Francois Choderlos De LacLos. Hampton won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1988 and his script is a marvel to read as much as the final film is to watch.

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To soothe her wounded pride and embarrass Gercourt, Merteuil seeks to arrange the seduction and disgrace of his young and virtuous fiancée, Cécile de Volanges (played by a very young and beautiful Uma Thurman), who has spent her formative years in the shelter of a convent. Merteuil calls on the rakish and completely unprincipled Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) to do the deed, offering him her own sexual favors as the reward for a successful conquest. But Valmont declines, as he has a seduction of his own in progress: Madame de Tourvel (the lovely Michelle Pfeiffer), the virtuous wife of a member of Parliament. But not one to refuse a challenge, Valmont modifies the proposal: If he succeeds in sleeping with Tourvel, Merteuil must sleep with him as well. Merteuil accepts, on the condition that he furnish written proof of the liaison.

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For anyone who has ever been in love, Dangerous Liaisons has something for you: Love, Passion, Betrayal, Bitterness and Revenge. We may not have acted on the last one but who hasn’t thought of it am I right? And that’s what this movie centered around, the grandest of guilty human pleasures, revenge on someone who has broken your heart. The fact that the revenge plot ends up turning on the conspirators in the end is what makes this drama so ingenious and relays the message that even the cruelest of people can still be touched by love, hurt by the loss of it and redeemed by it in the end.

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Glenn Close is a revelation in her role as the scheming mastermind Merteuil. She is as evil, vindictive and formidable as any movie villain and would make Close a much-sought after actress in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Equally effecting on the other side of the pendulum is Michelle Pfeiffer as Madame de Tourvel, the very embodiment of virtue who will be destroyed body and soul by Valmont (John Malkovich eating the scenery in a powdered-wig).

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An interesting side note: Michelle Pfeiffer appeared in Tequila Sunrise and Married to the Mob in addition to Dangerous Liaisons in 1988. That’s range, baby!

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What I love as a writer is when you open a script (Hampton’s screenplay is available for free download online if you do a simple search) and there is one line of dialogue that sums up the entire emotional core of the motion picture. For Dangerous Liaisons, this line occurs on page 10. Merteuil (Close) is speaking with Valmont (Malkovich) as they concoct their evil plot when the discussion comes around to love.

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MERTEUIL

Love is something you use, not something you fall into, Like quicksand, don’t you remember? It’s like medicine, you use it as a lubricant to nature.

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Of course, Close’s character is setting herself up along with everyone else for a fall. As cynical and coldly calculating as she thinks she is, she will end up hurting herself as much as anyone and destroying the thin-veneer of respectability under which she conducts her machinations. And that is how Dangerous Liaisons acquires the rarest of qualities in a movie, let alone a movie role. For this movie may be set in Pre-Revolutionary Paris, France but the historical context is secondary. Rather, it is a timeless story about lust and disgust, love and betrayal, good and evil. It is about people stripped down to the bone, exposed as their fortune’s rise and fall, played out for all to see. And in that way, the underlying storyline could not be more contemporary, the setting anywhere and virtually any time in human history.

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At the end of Dangerous Liaisons, most of the characters have been consumed by either love or hate. Close’s Merteuil will end up being stripped (literally of clothes and even makeup in the final shot) of her social standing, her lovers, and her power. Her fate is sealed as much as that of France’s aristocracy on the eve of revolution.

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The ending of this movie is so powerful that it gives you (or at least, me) shivers. The intimacy created with this despicable character by the extreme close-ups evokes sympathy for the devil herself. Close holds the audience’s attention, staring out at them with contempt, fear, loss and despair.

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She may be staring into a mirror on screen but she is breaking the fourth wall to connect with us, warn us that if we’re not careful we will be next. Caution us that if used as a weapon, Love can destroy.

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I encourage anyone who wants to delve deeper into this complex movie to download the script, rent the movie and see how Christopher Hampton’s script, Stephen Frears direction; Close, Malkovich and Pfeiffer’s acting (and Peter Owen and Jean-Luc Russier’s Hair and Makeup) created a masterpiece of the human condition. A film that would be remade in 1999’s Cruel Intentions and is as timeless a tale as Shakespear’s Taming of the Shrew or Hamlet. And for a period piece, Dangerous Liaison’s sets are unequalled in the opulence of France’s gilded age, the perfect background to a moment in history when the divide between the haves and have-nots could not have been wider. Not unlike the United States of America, circa 2014.

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If you enjoyed this blog, consider continuing the discussion with me this coming Tuesday at 1pm Pacific. I’ll be presenting a webinar on The Writers Store talking about fascinating period pictures like Dangerous Liaisons and the cinematic ingredients that can make a historical movie into a timeless classic. https://www.writersstore.com/writing-the-period-piece/

 

 

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.

1974 Academy Awards

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.

Twentieth Century Fox-Inside the Photo Archive.

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…

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