Nancy Allen: I Want To Hold Her Hand

15 May

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Anyone who is a fanatical film fan will instantly recognize Nancy Allen from one of several iconic roles she portrayed in over 40 years in the business. What amazes me, however, is so many of those roles I had forgotten about over the years. It’s kind of like growing up with someone you went to school with and then losing touch when you graduate. There are so many memories you share that are triggered when you see each other again that come back in a flood. That’s what happened to me recently when I caught sight of Nancy in Carrie (1976).

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Nancy played Chris Hargensen, the most popular girl in high school opposite the least popular, Carrie, played by Sissy Spacek. Nancy did a phenomenal mean girl, defining the archetype for decades to come. It was a monumentous movie for many reasons – Stephen King’s beloved book was successfully translated to film by director Brian DePalma (who would end up marrying Nancy!), it was John Travolta’s breakout movie role, and, the film would usher in the teenage horror genre like none before it.

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The film owes much to Nancy’s role as antagonist. She is such a bitch in the film that sympathy is consistently thrown to Carrie, making the climactic ending all the more satisfying. Nancy played the role to perfection and it would launch her A-List status in Hollywood for the next two decades. But it is the film Nancy made two years later that would really cement her status in film actress history: director Robert Zemeckis’s film debut “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

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I Want To Hold Your Hand is a wonderful movie, full of nostalgia for Beatlemania told on a human scale in the form of Beatles maniacs who will stop at nothing to meet their idols. Nancy is luminous in her obsessive-determined fan role and her performance is worth renting the often-overlooked film.

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As far as music-themed fan-based films, I Want To Hold Your Hand is right up there with That Thing You Do, Starstruck and Backbeat. And if you haven’t heard of those films, you need to stop reading this blog and immediately rent them now.

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Nancy’s next big role was in the thwarted comedy by Steven Spielberg called “1941” (Speilberg had produced I Want To Hold Your Hand). By any standard, 1941 is a hot mess of a movie but it does have it’s moments – one of them being to watch Nancy Allen. It’s almost impossible for me to recommend this movie for any other reason – maybe to watch John Belushi – then again, just stick with watching Nancy and turn it off immediately after.

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Nancy would go on to shine in several movies in 1980, the greatest among them being husband Brian DePalma’s “Dressed To Kill.” This movie is a hot mess too but in a very different and much more entertaining way. For me, Nancy is the emotional center of this movie, scenery-eating portrayals by Micheal Caine and Angie Dickinson notwithstanding. Maybe even because of the camp factor in this splashy, glamour-lit murder/horror show, Nancy looms largest in her portrayal of a call girl who dabbles in the stock market. Also, it is one of the few times in film history when an audience can tell that a director is totally in-love with an actress. Just compare it with any Hitchcock movie and you’ll see what I mean.

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A particularly saucy shot of Nancy seducing the audience from Dressed To Kill.

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At this point in the movie, we don’t know Micheal Caine is a killer. All we know is that Nancy slays in black lingerie.

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After Dressed To Kill, Nancy followed her director-husband’s lead and did “Blow Out” a 1980 thriller starring John Travolta at the height of his initial fame. It bears mentioning that DePalma is the biggest Hitchcock fan on the planet and really took what old Alfred did best and kind of bastardized it in his own films. Please don’t get me wrong, DePalma is a gifted director and made one of my all-time favorite films – The Untouchables. That said, the single-biggest reason to watch Blow Out today is Nancy Allen. She’s smart, she’s sassy and she’s a hell of a lot better actress that young Travolta is in this cross between The Conversation and Blow Up. I’ll let you Google those titles, but they are yet more cinema classics that deserve your attention.

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And now we come to Nancy’s most iconic role: Police Officer Anne Lewis in the seminal sci-fi classic “RoboCop.” The 1987 film was the Hollywood debut of Dutch directorPaul Verhoeven, and did extremely well at the box office. This is by far one of the most intelligent, violent and flat-out balls-to-the wall crowd-pleasers that came out of the 1980s. It would spawn two sequels and become a highly-lucrative franchise for fanboys who couldn’t get enough of Peter Weller’s RoboCop and his sexy, loyal partner, Anne. Again, I think Nancy brings so much heart to the proceedings that it keeps the otherwise over the top movie grounded in an almost romantic realism. I just love everything about her here and believe Nancy was at the at the top of her game.

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Nancy’s evolution from starlet to movie star is one worth revisiting. From her early 1970’s work…

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…to her breakout in Carrie…

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…how much fun does this look like! To her marriage to DePalma and rubbing shoulders with Hollywood heavyweights…

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You know DePalma is in heaven here nestled between two gorgeous and famous blondes…

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To her sexy, smart turn in Dressed To Kill…

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To her cameo in Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” (1998) opposite George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez…

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Nancy Allen held her own and portrayed sensitive, often vulnerable no less formidable females on the silver screen.

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Maybe that’s what prepared her for her biggest roles later on in life…

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As an advocate for the environment and activist for breast cancer. Now retired from film, Nancy spends all her time as the executive director of WeSPARK Cancer Support Center. Founded by her longtime friend and I Wanna Hold Your Hand co-star, actress Wendie Jo Sperber, Nancy is an inspiration for breast cancer survivors everywhere. It’s the perfect role for an actress who has made an indelible mark through her beauty, poise and intelligence. Check out http://www.wespark.org/nancy-allen/ and let Nancy know how much you appreciate everything she’s done. It’s one way a fan can give back to a beloved actress whose not only touched there lives through art, but continues to move people through her devotion to a truly-important cause!

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Thanks for all the movie memories and everything you do, Nancy!!

 

The Maltese Falcon: The Flitcraft Parable

31 Jan

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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:

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“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:

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“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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THE MALTESE FALCON, Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, 1941

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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Blondie: Rock Goddess with a Heart of Glass

3 Oct

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Debbie Harry was one of my first crushes. A beautiful and talented rock goddess who was essentially a supermodel when she hit the stateside music scene in 1977 with her band, Blondie.

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My older brother had a poster of Debbie up in his room but I never made the connection of who she was until I heard “Hearts Of Glass”, the band’s first hit single in 1977. Debbie was not just a pretty face, but a full-throated lead singer about to explode.

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I wasn’t old enough to go to any of her concerts over the next several years as she dominated the airwaves with singles “Call Me”, “Atomic”, and the aforementioned “Hearts of Glass.” But thanks to MTV, I got to marvel at how beautiful and artistic she was live on stage, in music videos and movie cameos.

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Debbie had a raw, fearless sexuality on stage. She wasn’t afraid to do anything her creative urges told her to do. She was about as glamorous as it got back in the early 80’s before big hair, stone-washed jeans and shoulder-pads began to cover the landscape.

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Debbie had a style all her own. Of course, she would eventually succumb to the big hair phenomenon like everyone else. But she did it while retaining her own style. One that no one else could quite pull off.

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Blondie broke up in 1982 (they would get back together off and on over the years) and Debbie would pursue a solo career with success. I always found her fascinating to watch and would now and again check in with her career over the years.

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What I find fascinating now that I’m older, is how you become so nostalgic for the interests of your youth. Some fade and become idle curiosities – namely, why did I ever like so-and-so in the first place. But that has never been the case with Debbie. I’m still as fascinated by her today as I was way back when. A true sign of a class act if ever there was one.

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I think the reason Debbie Harry has retained her mystic over the years is because she never followed trends. She was a true original back when that not only was tolerated in the music industry, but lauded. Her fan base was broad and she had fans young and old, not just because of her music but also her beauty and screen presence.

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And like every other aging fanboy, the older I get I inevitably delve deeper into the past looking for connections to it. Debbie is no exception. I’ve only recently found out that before her musical career, she was a model and, incredibly, a playboy bunny at one point. Interesting how her photos are so tame compared to today. I love their artistic aesthetic, in addition to Debbie’s raw beauty.

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Debbie is still fearless today, posing topless. She is still a very hot momma, in my humble opinion.

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It’s a testament to Debbie’s artistic leanings that none of these images are gratuitous. They all have some intrinsic value in addition to capturing Debbie’s physical beauty back when she was truly in her rock goddess prime.

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Debbie has always been a flirt both on and off stage, as evidenced by this great candid below. Proving that blondes do have more fun.

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I’ll always love this Blonde bombshell. The Rock Goddess with a Heart of Glass captured mine a long, long time ago.

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She survived disco, after all, coming through it unscathed. No easy task for a time when so many lost their artistic souls.

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This is how I’ll always remember Blondie when I first met her, up on my brother’s wall…

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And this is how the Rock Goddess looks today: formidable while still beautiful, and ready to kick some ass!

Kelly Reilly: Best Thing About True Detective, Season 2

6 Sep

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Kelly Reilly is the most amazing actress you’ve never heard of. And she is easily the best thing out of the second season of True Detective. Don’t get me wrong, Rachel McAdams did an amazing star-turn and turned her acting career around as a result. But the true star turn for me was bringing Kelly to a broader audience.

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Kelly has been around for years now, lighting up the screen in such films as FLIGHT (2012) playing opposite drug-addled commercial pilot Denzel Washington. Kelly’s portrayal of a vulnerable and fragile recovering drug-addict-cum-love interest is the best thing about that film as well.

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Kelly is an English Rose, having begun her career in the theater. Her performance in After Miss Julie at the Donmar Warehouse made her a star of the London stage and earned her a nomination for a Laurence Olivier Theatre Award for Best Actress of 2003.

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Kelly’s gutsy on-screen performances are matched by her tenacity off-screen. As a young actress in England, Kelly wrote the producers of the television drama Prime Suspect to ask for work, and 6 months later she auditioned for a role in an episode Prime Suspect 4: Inner Circle which aired in 1995. Six years later, she appeared alongside Helen Mirren in the film Last Orders

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Kelly continued doing legitimate theater in England honing her acting chops for her big shot at the screen. That came in the guise of an Englishman, rather one of the most famous fictional Englishman ever, as Mary Watson opposite Jude Law and Robert Downey, Jr. in Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011).

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Kelly has a unique on screen chemistry with the camera. She is a gorgeous red-head with freckles from head-to-toe and a smoldering stare. But I think it’s the Irish ancestry in her that gives my heart a twitter. She is one of those actresses who looks like she could break but is tough as nails. I think that the buzz coming off True Detective will give her even more opportunities to spread her wings on the silver screen and for that I’m thankful.

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I think Kelly is so talented, in fact, that she could be her own lead in a drama or thriller. One that would give her center-stage and let her totally captivate the audience without having to split their attentions with other, lesser actors. I’m hoping she gets a shot at a lead role in the near future. I think she could be big if only given the chance. And according to her rep in Hollywood, many directors and producers want to work with the gifted actress.

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Here’s to Kelly’s tenacity and guts paying off very soon in a theater or tv screen near you. Look for her in True Detective, Season 2. I know the second installment was laughably bad in parts but seeing Kelly will make your day as it did mine when I watched the 6-part series on HBO. I only hope she’ll pop up again soon.

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To the English Rose with Irish Eyes. May she entrance Hollywood as much as she has this writer and give her the shot at the big-time she richly deserves!

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.

THE MALTESE FALCON, Elisha Cook, Jr., Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, 1941

THE MALTESE FALCON, Elisha Cook, Jr., Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, 1941

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.

 

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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