Cybill Shepherd: Taxi Driver Confessions

26 Jul

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There is no denying Cybill Shepherd’s attractiveness. She is an absolutely beautiful blonde with a smoldering intelligence that makes her gaze unavoidable, especially to men.

October 1972:  Studio portrait of American model and actor Cybill Shepherd leaning forward while lying on her stomach with her hand to her face in a low-cut top, New York City.  (Photo by Gerald Israel/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When she came onto the Hollywood scene in the early 1970’s that was basically all it took to at least get a shot in Hollywood. And Cybill took it.

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Different generations will remember Cybill for different indelible roles she embodied.

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Her first big blush with fame was as Jacy Farrow in Peter Bogdanovich’s LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971).

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Jacy is a femme fatale of the highest order and Cybill portrayed her like an irresistible wrecking ball, both onscreen and on the set.

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The comely actress not only had affairs with the director as well as her young co-star, Jeff Bridges – but almost everyone else associated with this classic movie.

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She was accused of wrecking the director’s marriage. Her and Peter would go on to make two more movies together – both critical box office failures.

 

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And it isn’t hard to believe why every man that came in her path would end up seduced by her.

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Next up for Cybill was THE HEARTBREAK KID (1972) with Charles Grodin and directed by Elaine May.

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The film was another critical hit and Cybill was on her way to becoming Hollywood’s next big “it” girl.

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Of course, I’m part of the generation that remembers Cybill most for her role as Betsy opposite Robert DeNiro in Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976).

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I was too young to see the movie in theaters but over a decade later after it’s release I caught it on cable (as did an entire generation) and Cybill certainly made an impression as Travis Bickle’s obsession.

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Cybill is amazing in this role and a critical part of the storyline. Travis’s obsession with her is what drives him to do more and more desperate acts to gain her favor.

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Instead, it turns him into more of a psychopath – and this is what sets up one of the most amazing endings in modern film history.

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Legend has it that Scorsese asked his casting agent for a “Cybill Shepherd” type. The young director had no idea that he would be able to get the real thing.

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I’m a believer that if this role wasn’t as compelling as Cybill was able to make it, then the cognitive leap for DeNiro’s character to go full-on psycho at the end would not have been as believable.

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But it was believable and TAXI DRIVER became a highly influential film for many screenwriters and filmmakers. Now, you would think that Cybill would have Hollywood by the tail after this movie and her previous hits but you would be wrong.

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While a critical hit, Taxi Driver made relatively little money on its initial theatrical release. And two short years later in 1978, Cybill would leave Hollywood, returning to her hometown of Memphis, TN to do regional theater.

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Cybill would return to Hollywood in 1983 just in time to land MOONLIGHTING after a couple successful turns in smaller films. This was back in the days when a film star who turned to TV was still a risky endeavor.

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But the producers wanted Cybill so much that they allowed her final say on her male co-star. She ultimately decided on Bruce Willis because of their on-screen chemistry.

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The chemistry was so good, in fact, that Cybill and Bruce almost ended up in bed together off the set. But instead, they refrained from their baser instincts in favor of keeping it smoldering on the small screen and the show was a huge, Emmy-winning hit for several years.

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Cybill went on to have her own TV show as well as write a best-selling autobiography in which she spilled the beans on all the famous men she slept with on the way up, down, and back up the Hollywood ladder.

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It’s refreshing to know such a successful actress can tell it like it is when such candid confessions could end a career. But then, Cybill was never one to go along with the pack.

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I’ll always love Cybill Shepherd for her beauty and intelligence and the way she was able to live her life on her own terms in an industry that usually only affords such privilege on men.

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Cybill beat the boys at their own game, however, and took her lumps to boot. It’s a great career and one that any actress working today should aspire to. With or without the Taxi Driver credentials, Cybill will always be one of my absolute biggest Hollywood crushes.

 

The Maltese Falcon: The Flitcraft Parable

14 Jun

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If the stars suddenly aligned on an especially dark night and I was given the chance to remake the film of my choice, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell the movie gods I will do The Maltese Falcon. And if such a cinematic fate befell me, my adaptation would include one special passage in Dashiell Hammet’s novel that has never been translated to film even though at least three film Falcons have soared into movie theaters since the novel debuted in 1930.

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Noir fans call it the “Flitcraft Parable” found in Chapter 7: G in the Air — a short digression completely unrelated to the novel’s plot in which Sam Spade, tells Brigitte O’Shaunessy a little story about a man named Flitcraft.

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In the story, Spade explains how Flitcraft, a real estate agent and family man living in Tacoma goes to lunch one day never to return.  Five years go by and his wife comes to the detective agency where Spade is working with news: someone in Spokane has seen a man resembling her husband. She retains Spade to track him down only to discover that it is indeed Flitcraft.

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Flitcraft tells Spade the day he went to lunch, he had walked by an office building under construction and a huge beam fell from eight to ten stories up, impaling itself into the sidewalk right beside him. The experience of nearly being killed had a profound effect on Flitcraft, jarring him out of his very existence for a moment. As Spade explains:

“He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works,” says Spade. “The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things.”

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Flitcraft had left for Seattle that day without any provisions or extra cash. To his family, it was as if he had simply disappeared off the face of the earth. Flitcraft moved around a little bit before eventually coming back to Washington State where he married again – to a woman very much in appearance and temperament as his first wife – and started a new family. Spade concludes the story with a final thought:

“I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma,” says Spade. “But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

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I know why no filmmaker before me has ever seen the need to keep this digression in their movie version of The Maltese Falcon. It’s because on the surface of it, the Flitcraft Parable has nothing specifically to do with the larger plot of The Maltese Falcon. But if you think about it in terms of Spade’s character and, by extrapolation, author Hammett – you see that it has everything to do with how Spade is able to prevail in almost any situation put before him.

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Sam Spade is a master of observation.  A student of human behavior with the uncanny ability to boil life down to its barest and most basic essentials at any given moment. He’s able to see a situation by any given angle and point of view from whichever character he finds in the room. He knows that once you strip away love, desire, greed, lust, rage and romanticism from any equation – you are left with the truth: what we do with our lives is largely insignificant in the larger scheme of things.

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Who we love or hate, who we back and who we resist, will be most certainly be forgotten soon after we shed this mortal coil. That thought, whether delivered by steel beam from the heavens or a loved one’s untimely departure, whether by ugly divorce, chronic illness or natural catastrophe – is coming for each and every human who has ever lived. And when faced with our own mortality, we humans tend to react with varying forms of panic, fear, terror and desperation.

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What is less common, however, and what is so magical and I believe cinematic about Hammett’s Flitcraft Parable is not so much what the character of Flitcraft does – but how and why Sam Spade is telling the story in the first place. Spade is telling Brigitte that he (Spade) perceives life to be a game at best, a cosmic joke at worst. We’re lucky to even be alive, walking the earth so why take things so seriously? And at the same time, Spade plays the game well, better than anyone else and that includes her. And because of this high-powered perception, he knows that she is bad, playing him for a sap, a chump. He’ll play along as long as it amuses him, to see how it all ends up. Because what’s love when there’s a steel beam 30 stories up just waiting to fall with your number on it. Might as well enjoy life before it falls and that includes playing chess with the likes of a beautiful femme fatale.

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In the end of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s greatest fear is not death but being made a fool. And he’ll resist being her fool because as he tells her, “all of me wants to.” Spade could give Gandhi a run for his money when it comes to resisting an urge. He’s a professional, after all, with a job to do. And when death does come for him as it will all of us , you better believe he’ll stare into the Grim Reaper’s eye-sockets and grin back at him. Now that’s dark, people. It’s why I love Noir because it doesn’t hold back on the reality of the human condition – but pushes it kicking and screaming into the center of the spotlight.

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We’re all going to die, so we might as well enjoy ourselves and have a little fun. That’s why Noir as a genre is more than alive as well. Why Hammett’s Flitcraft Parable would be right at home in recent existential fare such as TRUE DETECTIVE (can’t you see Matthew McConaughey’s character regaling The Flitcraft Parable to an annoyed Woody Harrelson?) or even THE DARK KNIGHT’s JOKER character played by the late, great Heath ledger.  That’s the power of classic Noir, to strike a chord in every human’s fibrous, meaty core and question why each one of us are here and why the hell we take everything so damn seriously.

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Take Hammett and Spade’s word for it. Life is a game so enjoy it for what it’s worth and remember to play the game well while you have the time. Because you better believe the competition are playing for keeps – and no one likes to be made a fool of.

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Claire Trevor: Queen of Film Noir

7 Jun

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Claire Trevor is no stranger to Noir Film fanatics like myself. From 1933 to 1938, Claire made 29 films in which she was the heroine.

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She was gorgeous but these still glamour shots don’t really do her beauty justice. That’s because Claire cannot be truly appreciated unless she is in motion. She had such a unique and affecting acting style that her static attraction cannot capture what she was like in the dynamic.

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What’s even more interesting is that Claire became MORE beautiful as she matured. Her work in the 30’s was as the prototypical bad girl but her work in the 1940’s was more character-based and thus gave her the chance to really spread her wings.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love the young Claire in DEAD END (1937) as Francey opposite Bogart and for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Her portrayal of a desperate woman forced into prostitution only to be rejected by her hood boyfriend as a result is intense and magnetic. But it would only foretell the heights her acting would reach later.

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My ideal Claire Trevor movies are MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), BORN TO KILL (1948) and last but certainly not least, KEY LARGO (1948) in which she played opposite Humphrey Bogart again, this time with his wife Lauren Bacall. The role of gun moll Gaye Dawn to Edward G. Robinson’s gangster Johnny Rocco finally won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. You only need see the performance to understand what lengths Claire is willing to go to nail the role of a torch songstress-cum-alcoholic whose been kicked around a little too much.

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Claire said that the scene where Johnny Rocco forces her to sing unaccompanied for a much-needed libation was sprung on her at a moment’s notice by Director John Huston. Claire was horrified because she was unprepared but that’s exactly what Huston wanted. Her performance of a woman well passed her performance prime is haunting. It was easily the best performance in the movie, and when you’re talking a Noir full of heavy weights like Robinson, Bogart and Bacall – that is saying something!

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Claire eats the scenery in Key Largo every time she appears on screen. Her master of her craft and instrument are bar none. I only wish she was in the movie more, because her performance balances an otherwise sentimental and overly sanctimonious commentary on war, racism and a heavy-handed nod toward naturalism: nature taking a hand in wiping out an evil seed like Johnny Rocco is interesting as a metaphor but not so much in application. Claire, on the other hand, is the true force of nature in Key Largo and it would have been interesting to see her as a real threat for Bogart’s affections from the fawn-like, subdued Bacall. But alas, she was closer in age to Bogart than Bacall and we know how Hollywood is about casting mature love interests (i.e. they don’t like it).

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It’s interesting to watch Bogart and Trevor in DEAD END and then watch them in KEY LARGO. Both are acting greats, though Bogart is remembered and Claire largely forgotten. A true powerhouse, Claire retains the title of Queen of Film Noir even though Lisbeth Scott, Ellie Raines and Lana Turner each took their turn as the Noir ‘It’ Girl of the late ’30s and early ’40s. the difference is that Claire got better with every star turn, then every supporting role. She was a true craftswoman when it came to acting and she reinvested in every role regardless of how small.

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Once you get your fill of Bogart and Trevor, get a palate cleanser with Claire opposite Lawrence Tierney in BORN TO KILL. Tierney was a fucking lunatic in the Robert Wise directed Noir. His performance is lampoonish by today’s standards but Claire is right on the money as the equally-corrupt love interest who falls for a madman and tries in vain to save her family and herself in the end. Claire has a mature, smoldering sexuality that translates in motion on the silver screen. She is at the top of her game, even though the movie itself (other than Elisha Cook, Jr. who is equally brilliant) is dated.

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Claire is a class act no matter what vehicle she was put in – a race car or a clunker – she was able to make the most out of whatever material she was given. That’s why I consider Claire the thinking-man’s actress. Her instincts and talent translated so naturally to the screen that there have been very few whose beauty and acting chops made them what Claire Trevor was in her hey day: The Queen of Film Noir could hold her own against the best of them.

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Young or old, this man-killer is one of the greatest actresses of any Hollywood era. Do yourself a favor and check out TCM’s Summer of Darkness and learn more about the hugely talented and beautiful Claire Trevor. You won’t be sorry you did. And you may just fall in love with one of Hollywood’s greatest femme fatales – just don’t turn your back on her!

 

Hedy Lamarr: Smoking Hot Genius

17 May

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Why the story of Hedy Lamarr hasn’t been made into a movie yet I’ll never understand. She was one of the most beautiful movie stars to ever grace the silver screen. But beyond her obvious attributes, Hedy was a bonafide genius. Hers was a classic case of beauty and brains taken to the extreme. And maybe because of the fact she was so beautiful, her academic achievements would never be taken seriously. Not until over 40 years later, at least.

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Born Hedwig Kiesler, Hedy grew up in Vienna as an Austrian Banker’s unorthodox daughter. A self-described enfant terrible, Hedy gained notoriety while still a teenager for running through the woods naked in the Czech film “Ecstacy”.

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Shorty afterwards, Hedy married wealthy arms merchant Fritz Mandl, a Hitler admirer. She accompanied Mandl to business and political dinners, quietly listening while her husband and his Nazi friends plotted advanced weaponry for the coming war.

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Hedy managed a daring escape from the marriage by drugging a maid ordered to keep tabs on her. She fled to England, taking with her all the knowledge and information her Nazi-sympathizer husband has unwittingly exposed her to. Information that would be of incredible value to the Allies in a few years.

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In London, Hedy met film mogul Louis B. Mayer. Mayer took one look at the natural beauty and shipped her to Hollywood and promptly rechristened her Hedy Lamarr.

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A self-taught mathematical genius, the 26-year old Hedy created “frequency-hopping” or “spread-spectrum” technology. She applied her theory to radio-controlled torpedoes, to sink Nazi ships without having their frequency being jammed by the enemy. Lamarr won a patent for her secret communication system. But it wasn’t until 1962, 20 years later, that the Navy would incorporate it into their torpedo guidance systems in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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During WWII, Hedy was urged not to pursue the inventor’s route, but instead to help fight the war by selling war bonds as a glamorous actress, which she did. In one evening alone, Hedy sold over $7 million worth of bonds by selling kisses for $50,000 each! A record that has never been broken since.

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Hedy never received a penny for her ground-breaking spread-spectrum technology. Her patent expired in 1959, but it is being used today in everything from cellular phones, to military defense satellites. Hedy was finally honored for services rendered during WWII by the Electric Frontier Foundation, among other honors. But it was scant recognition for technology that would eventually become the foundation for a trillion-dollar business.

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Living in Florida shortly before her death at 84, the former movie goddess and mathematical genius had a tough time making ends meet. But ever the Lady, when asked about her new-found fame surrounding her invention, Hedy simply replied, “It’s about time.”

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Hedy Lamarr’s true-life story is more fascinating to me than any she ever portrayed on screen. In the 1940’s and 50’s her star was among the brightest in the Hollywood Universe, with films like WHITE CARGO, ALGIERS and SAMSON & DELILAH rocketing her to fame. But watching the sex-kitten roles today gives me a slow burn, knowing tinseltown considered this beautiful woman better without a brain. One that could create technology out of a need to rid the world of Nazis but would end up having much farther reaching effects to this very day.

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I’m hoping some day in the near future, Hollywood will finally get it right and do justice to this golden age movie goddess by telling her story on the silver screen. Hedy’s is truly an original tale and the most unique and unlikely comeback story in virtually all of Hollywood history. You’d think they’d be interested in something like that. Even if it does make them look foolish.

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To Hedy Lamarr, the ultimate Beauty with Brains!

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Hedy in her hey-day.

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One of my favorite glamour shots of the brunette beauty.

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Hedy smoking-hot in her screen debut in Czech silent “Ecstacy”.

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A rare nude of the young movie goddess.

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An even rarer shot of Hedy smiling for the cameras.

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Jean Simmons: My Spartacus Beauty

10 May

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Jean Simmons is my idea of the perfect pin-up. She was curvaceous, sexy and could turn the world on with a million-watt smile. I first met her in a Roman riverbank thanks to AMC (back when classic movies ran commercial-free!) and the Stanley Kubrick directed SPARTACUS with Kirk Douglas. This was the same fever-induced weekend when I was binge-watching classics while high on Nyquil. The stuff didn’t make me sleep off the flu as much as put me in an altered-state of consciousness. One in which I was prey to some of the most beautiful silver screen goddesses. But the greatest goddess of all that weekend was the bosomy Jean Simmons. She was destined to even beat out Elizabeth Taylor in CLEOPATRA. All because of that skinny-dipping scene opposite Kirk “The Chin” Douglas.

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For anyone who hasn’t seen Spartacus, it’s a fantastic sandal & sword epic from back when studios were banking big bucks on putting their a-list stars in burlap sacks and parading them in front of epic backdrops a la ancient Greece, Rome, Babylon, Egypt – anywhere that the studios could build their massive backlots to emulate. Most of the time they look fake and you need to use more than a little imagination (or Nyquil) to believe. But none of that mattered when Jean swam into frame. I caught the movie in the middle but as far as I was concerned my timing was impeccable. If first impressions are everything, then Jean Simmons made an entrance like no other movie star, ever.

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The scene was obviously risque for the time-period. Late 50’s early 60’s were still chaste by any standard. But Kubrick had a way of justifying his directorial leanings to the censors in such a way that he could get away with having one of the most gorgeous leading-ladies strip down, get into the water and get audiences to buy that her nudity was in keeping with the storyline and her character. Of course, all I cared about at the time was that AMC was going to rebroadcast Spartacus over and over again that weekend, and I could spend my entire time laid out in bed with the beautiful Ms. Simmons.

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One of the great things about AMC back then was they would show a featurette before the movie about the making of the classic called BACKSTORY. I was enthralled with all things Spartacus that weekend, especially how Kubrick shot nude-scenes with Jean and Kirk in a ploy to shock the censors. When they inevitably balked at having her appear topless in love scene (above) Kubrick would “compromise” with the scene he had always intended on using – and everyone was happy. It was a tantalizing tease for the movie’s release back in the day. And the added benefit of Kubrick’s ploy was capturing the beautiful Ms. Simmons at the zenith of her beauty for all future generations to ogle over – especially me – albeit in stills.

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To my knowledge, the offending nude scene footage did not survive. Like so many movies before it, Spartacus was not taken care of the way it should have been and was not restored to full-glory until decades later. These still are all that remain of Jean’s daring skinny-dip for the sword & sandal epic. But there is enough of her in the movie to still make it a thrilling watch. And need I stress that Jean Simmons is an amazing actress aside from her feminine beauty. She is and always will be a class-act in every sense of the word. I only wish that I had seen Spartacus in a movie theater the way it was intended to be watched. Seeing her projected on a 40-foot screen would have made my head spin more than it did that weekend. But until I catch a retrospective, I’ll just have to suffice by seeing her on my flatscreen at home and reminisce of the weekend Jean Simmons nursed me back to health by repeated viewings of seeing her swim in the buff in ancient Rome.

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Here’s Jean with a lot more clothes on looking Pretty in Pink.

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Here she is in her Hollywood heyday hobnobbing with Stewart Granger (Jean’s husband from 1950 – 1960) and that other buxom beauty, Jane Russell.

And one more of Jean, a goddess of the silver screen – dressed down and casual in a contemplative mood.

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Barbara Payton: Ticking Bombshell

26 Apr

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Few may remember the beautiful Barbara, a contemporary of Marilyn Monroe. Like Monroe, Barbara was a beautiful blonde with serious acting chops and a lust for life, sex and drugs. Unlike Monroe, Barbara’s addictions overshadowed her talent before she was able to become famous. And after only a few roles in the limelight, she drowned in a dark pool of alcohol. Today, the only reason people remember her is because she is one of the biggest cautionary tales to ever come out of Hollywood.

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Barbara Payton started out as did many starlets in B-movies, Noir Thrillers that cast her as the femme fatale. And like many starlets, she bided her time, giving the most she could from these small roles and trying to build a career within the restraints of the studio system. A system that seemed to have only two roles for women: The whore or the wife who is an angel.

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Barbara was a statuesque blonde with dangerous curves and an intelligence that made the latter role of adoring wife none to believable, at least in 1950’s America. But as an actress on her way up she had all the right ingredients – talent, beauty and above all a distinctive look. And like many contemporaries, she enjoyed herself in the Hollywood nightlife. Maybe a little too much for her studio bosses.

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The sad truth of it is that Barbara had everything going for her but she wanted to act like one of the boys at a time when women were supposed to be chaste and virtuous even though the characters they portrayed onscreen where not. This was only one of Hollywood’s incredible list of double standards when it came to actresses or any woman who wanted to be taken seriously in the business. But it was probably the biggest rule in tinseltown, especially for actresses who had not attained enough power and stardom to even think about calling their own shots.

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Barbara’s big break came after she was beat out for the Marilyn Monroe part in The Asphalt Jungle by, well, Marilyn Monroe. She screen-tested for Jimmy Cagney and his producer brother William for the violent noir thriller Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye in 1950. Brother Cagney was so smitten with Payton’s sensual appeal and beauty that her contract was drawn as a joint agreement between William Cagney Productions and Warner Brothers, who paid Payton a salary of $5,000 a week. This was a huge sum for an actress yet to demonstrate star power at the box-office.

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Barbara hit a home run in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.  She held her own among a cast of Hollywood veterans and alongside super-star Cagney. Payton’s portrayal of the hardened, seductress who Cagney’s character ultimately double-crosses, was critically praised. Her acting chops were finally recognized and screen charisma cemented in the audience’s mind. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was Barbara’s career high. The moment all actresses wait for to break through. But it wasn’t to last.

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Barbara had stiff competition from Monroe, Mansfield, Turner and a host of other blonde bombshells. However, her biggest enemy was herself as news spread of her partying and lascivious activities in Hollywood. She could drink anyone of her male counterparts under the table. She also took anyone she fancied to bed. This left little to the imagination for an industry that is build on illusion. Even her handlers, agents and manager could not get her to curtail her lustful habits. They gave her one more big push, however, with another A-List film to see if she could pull herself out of her own personal and professional tailspin.

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Her next two onscreen performances were opposite Gary Cooper in Dallas and Gregory Peck in Only the Valiant. Both were westerns and ultimately lackluster box-office affairs. More depressing, they where roles that failed to highlight Barbara’s skills as a talented actress. Payton’s career quickly declined and found her plying her trade in such horrible horror fare as the Bride of the Gorilla (1951) opposite rising star Raymond Burr.

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Unfortunately, Payton’s excessive partying, drinking, and liaisons with men of dubious reputation killed her credibility and alienated the Hollywood power brokers. Barbara was to become a lost soul walking Hollywood’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams. She was unable to acknowledge that her once-promising career had crashed and burned. She fed her illusions with drugs, alcohol and men who used, abused and discarded her.

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The once-promising career of Barbara Payton slid down the sewer of skid row in Los Angeles. Her descent was so horrifying that it garnered her a different kind of fame – one that the likes of Lindsey Lohan are replaying for the public today. But unlike LiLo, Barbara would not get any second, third or fourth chances. Her last gasp was a tell-all memoir that was ghost-written and for which Barbara would only get $1,000 in drinking money. And drink she did.

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The paperback was a big seller, depicting how a beautiful young woman who had the world by the tail one minute, descends into depraved alcoholism and is forced to prostitute herself on the very street she once imagined having her Star on the Walk of Fame. To top it off, Barbara was portrayed as remorseless, seemingly determined at every turn to self-destruct even while denying that her acting career was over.

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The once-beautiful Barbara Payton ended up where she began, moving back into her parent’s home and joining them in alcoholic binges that would last weeks. She would die of heart and liver failure at the age of 39. It is truly a sad tale but not one that should ever be forgotten. And not one that can be entirely blamed on Hollywood. Because Hollywood success only magnifies the demons we each hold within ourselves, and hopefully in check. But fame very often fuels those inner demons and can destroy us faster than anyone or anything else. I’d like to think that if Barbara never became famous she may have lived a normal, healthy and long life. But that’s probably being as naive as Barbara was about her career.

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All we have left of her are beautiful, black and white images of the once-beautiful starlet who showed so much promise. I sincerely hope that Barbara’s story will find a wider audience some day because I think she struggled with her addictions more than people of her day realized. Mental illness and addiction are still not fully understood today but at least we as a society know they are a disease and deserve our compassion and attention. Maybe young people today will someday look back at Barbara Payton and learn from her story rather than be forced to repeat it. Maybe then her time in the limelight will have been well spent and her painful death not in vain.

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A couple more shots of a healthy, glowing Barbara Payton in her prime when she had her whole life and career ahead of her.

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Brooke Adams: Days of Heaven

12 Apr

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Brooke Adams was one of the most beautiful and versatile actresses of the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Her big break was playing opposite Richard Gere in director Terence Malick’s seminal drama DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978). The film is visually arresting, capturing the landscape of the Texas Panhandle in 1916 when lovers Bill and Abby conspire to defraud a dying farmer out of his land. Of course, the most beautiful thing about this movie, in my mind, is Brooke Adams and once you see the movie I believe you’ll agree.

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Brooke is a revelation in the role of Abby, coerced into seducing the farmer into marrying her by her real lover Bill (Gere). Adam’s face is one of innocence slowly corrupted by the power of love and then redeemed. The power of her inner beauty is only matched by the incredible cinematography, for which the film was nominated for an Oscar. Malick won at Cannes for his direction, though the film was a financial failure when it was initial released. Since then I’m happy to say it has become a classic.

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Brooke is a natural beauty and she was perfect casting for this tale of would be extortion. She is conflicted throughout much of the movie and her instincts are right on for the role of Abby. Brooke would enjoy other signature roles in the late 70’s and early 80’s such as in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (remake; 1978) and THE DEAD ZONE (1983) but it is very much DAYS OF HEAVEN that has made her mark in film history.

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The film is one of the arresting visual experiences since Sir David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962). The film was almost entirely shot during the magic hours of dawn and dusk, giving it a truly ethereal and timeless quality. Malick’s approach was to use as much natural light as possible for the tale, to give it’s characters and tragic story a mythic background and earthly color pallet. Maybe this is why Brooke Adams comes across as an earthly angel reminiscent of many silent film stars, even with a dirty face. This is a very hard thing to pull off in color vs. black & white and the desaturated nature of Malick’s framing gives the actress her own mystical quality – as if we’re perceiving her through a looking glass.

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There is one famous scene in the modestly-budgeted film where all the farm-hands are besieged by locusts. This effect was achieved by the filmmaker having his entire cast walk backward while thousands of peanut shells are dropped by helicopter. Of course, the action was filmed in reverse, so when projected normally it appears as if the locust are rising in swarms and the cast are walking forward in awe. A practical effect like this is rare to see today in film with CGI being used for everything. I believe the resulting effect is one that cannot be replicated with CGI today, and therefore is all the more magical to behold – especially because it worked so well.

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The other magical quality of this film is that, yet again, the perfect leading lady came along to elevate the material to another level. Brooke’s face is so expressive, so luminous and so young that she is captivating without eating the scenery. Indeed, her understated performance and Malick’s brilliant direction make this film timeless in a way that has stood the test of time. It is intended to be a historical picture, but not one from 1978 or from 1916 (when the story was set); DAYS OF HEAVEN possesses it’s own time period if that makes any sense. A time when America was still a frontier and people roamed it searching for their destinies besides wanting to become a movie or singing star. When we were still bound to the earth as if it were a part of us. When nature was largely still in control of the ebb and flow of people’s lives and people looked old by their early 40’s, if they made it to that ripe old age.

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And maybe that’s what sticks in the mind so much about DAYS OF HEAVEN for me. It’s a movie that works without any pretense, the storyline being almost incidental to the imagery and portrayal of characters who occupy physical space before us the way so few of us occupy it in our own lives today. It’s so hard to fathom the America in this movie because we are so far removed from nature in our daily lives. So when we see it projected in such a heightened state of reality, something deep within us (our collective humanity) tugs at our souls, telling us we’ve lost something. Nature is a character in DAYS OF HEAVEN as much as Adams, Gere or Sam Shepherd (the farmer). And for a few glorious hours, one can still get lost in the beauty of the natural world around us, albeit from a screen.

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It’s safe to say a movie like DAYS OF HEAVEN would not be made today. Then again, maybe some aspiring young director will take his or her cue from the master and bring back naturalism in all it’s bygone glory. I hope for them that they find an equally talented actress as Malick was able to find in Brooke Adams. A natural beauty whose ability to convey the world around her merely in her movement and the look in her eyes is as magical as the hours of dawn and dusk that still manage to take some people’s breath away. And when they do, I hope they use peanut shells instead of pixels to recreate the locust!

 

Dorothy Malone: Smart and Sexy

9 Apr

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Dorothy Malone is one of the movie stars that had everything: beauty, brains and talent. The reason you may not have ever heard of her is because Dorothy never had a huge hit propelling her into the stratosphere of glamorous stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age. A contemporary of Garbo, Dietrich, Stanwyck and Crawford, Malone was just as stunning although never connected with star-making material the way the others did.

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My first exposure to Dorothy was when she played the sexy, brassy ACME Book Store girl to Humphrey Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe in THE BIG SLEEP (1946). Check her out in a star-making performance that is brief but intense. Dorothy had all the sexuality of a major star and was a stunner in her brief interlude with Bogey.

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It would take decades for Dorothy to work her way up the Hollywood ladder, steadily getting more work and bigger, splashier roles. From her roots in B-Movies she was able to parlay her beauty and acting chops into an Oscar Winning Performance in WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956) a melodrama starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall and Robert Stack. Her scenery-eating performance earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, largely because she turned herself from a buxom brunette into a buxom blonde!

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Malone’s next big break came on the small screen in TV’s prime time soap opera PEYTON PLACE (1964-1968) when she played the lead role of Constance MacKenzie. Her star-turn was cut short however when she had to have major surgery for blood clots on her lungs and was off the air for two years. Malone came back, but her role was diminished because of Mia Farrow’s meteoric rise to fame. Dorothy ended up suing 20th Century Fox for $1.6 million over breach of contract when she was fired from the show – and the parties settled out of court.

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Malone chose to raise a family and concentrate on her private life in the 70’s and 80’s but she made one more memorable star-turn in the salacious and decadent BASIC INSTINCT (1992) playing Sharon Stone’s friend and fellow murderer. Again, it was a small role but one that Dorothy made memorable – just like she had with Bogart nearly 50 years before. Dorothy even passed up playing the matron in TV’s DALLAS, choosing instead to go back to her private life and living comfortably in Texas. I’m happy to say the beauty with brains is still with us today, celebrating her 90th birthday in 2015.

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Dorothy Malone may never have become a household name like some of the stars she played opposite, but she holds a place in Hollywood’s sky full of stars. And next time you’re in Tinseltown, check out her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 1718 Vine. She was a beauty for the ages and one to remember for never, ever giving up on her dreams of stardom.

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A cheesecake shot from Dorothy’s heyday as a platinum blonde.

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Even though I prefer her as her natural, brunette self!

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And one more random glamor shot from a bygone era.

Maika Monroe: It Follows

29 Mar

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This weekend’s breakout movie hit is IT FOLLOWS, a slasher movie that begs, borrows and steals from many different genre classics that is surprisingly more than the some of its stolen parts. But more than anything that makes IT FOLLOWS work is its star, Maika Monroe. And boy does the director know it because a fair portion of the movie rests on this rising young star’s face in close-up. So much so that you not only know the movie lives or dies by its lead-actresses understated performance, but that the movie-makers are relying on the character’s point-of-view more than any other narrative device to suck you into this new twist on the seemingly inexhaustible zombie movie.

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Maika is perfectly cast in the role of the beleaguered heroine. Like so many horror movie scream queens before her, evil itself is going to pay for her having sex. The twist here is that once she has sex and is being stalked by evil (conveniently passed on by her lover to her) she has to have sex AGAIN to pass it on to the next person. I won’t spoil the twist to this ultra-simple device because that would be to take away from the enjoyment of seeing how Maika’s character is going to get away – or not – from her apparent fate in this moody, gloomy, often existential exercise in ultra-low (read: no) budget horror fare that is going to make a ton of money one it’s limited theatrical run is over and it haunts cable forever.

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Now here’s the good part: IT FOLLOWS works on a couple different levels because the filmmaker’s know their genre and know their audience. There is, in this order, the ever-popular loss of innocence, existential malaise of teenage ensemble cast followed by teenage angst like you wouldn’t believe, general fear of the unknown and, last but not least, distrust of anybody over 30. The genius is that the filmmaker’s STEAL from some unexpected, classic psychological thriller sources dating back to the 60’s – Michelangelo Antonioni’s BLOW UP (1966) being my favorite. In fact, they use the classic BLOW UP as a template for exuding dread – many, many moody POV shots of rustling trees, lakes and nature in all its glorious indifference to our collective human fate that for a minute I thought I was watching (or wanting, at least) to be watching the counter-culture classic.

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Now here’s the bad part: IT FOLLOWS is so self-aware of who their target audience is (tweens into early teens and maybe a sprinkling of college-age) that it misses the opportunity to become a true genre classic because of that narrow focus. I get it, of course. Not many people my age seem to go out to movies anymore, let alone will blow good money on a movie marketed at teenagers with the requisite scream-shots that have become so cliched after BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY have blazed a path for films shot on digital video with next to no production value. But there again, I think the filmmaker’s (either consciously or unconsciously) have sold themselves short. They obviously know their craft and have the sense to steal from the best, albeit with a twist here and their to merit the hype and attention their getting. What sucks to me is that they didn’t take it one more level up, and by that I mean do what LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) filmmaker’s did and make this a story for the ages – all the ages.

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But back to the best part about IT FOLLOWS and that is it’s breakout star, Maika Monroe. She’s young, beautiful and virtuous in an age that is cynical, a generation that is predisposed to nihilism over optimism, and seem to know something that generations before her didn’t know until they got into their 40’s: that the burden of everyday life for some is incredibly hard and will never be understood by the majority. And therein lies the rub for both Maika’s character and the success or failure of IT FOLLOWS as an enduring classic in the psychological-horror genre that predominates our culture today. America, at least a strong minority, understand that things are not getting better but getting worse. Depression, paranoia and affliction (of whatever variety) plague our youngest citizens and the future, while forever uncertain, seems to become finite at a much younger age than to any generation before it. Not only does the dread of growing up and becoming a zombie (i.e. an adult with adult responsibilities) present clear and present danger in this movie (as it did in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) it’s as if the characters are being preyed upon by time itself. Slow, creeping, inevitable time eating away your youth as it heads straight for you. And that’s the one, definitive universal theme at the end of the movie that took me by surprise and made IT FOLLOWS worth watching.

Because what’s worse than growing old (here considered an affliction) in this modern world? The filmmaker’s know. It’s growing old alone.

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?

 

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