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Shadow On The Wall (1950)

22 Jun

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Shadow on the Wall is an early psychological thriller noir starring Ann Sothern as a femme fatale and Nancy Reagan as a child psychologist out to expose her by psycho-analyzing a young child. Think 1950s melodrama with scary moments.

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Ann is coming off a star turn in A Letter to Three Wives  (1949) which tells the story of a woman who mails a letter to three women, telling them she has left town with the husband of one of them. She co-starred with Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Kirk Douglas, and an uncredited Celeste Holm, who provided the voice of Addie Ross, the unseen woman who wrote the letter. ‘Letter’ was well-received but Ann’s film career was already on the wane – hence trying to re-invent herself as a noir villain seemed worth a shot.

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What I like most about Shadow On The Wall is Nancy Reagan’s first major film role as the child-psychologist. She is virtually unrecognizable from the FLOTUS she would become decades later when Ronald Reagan became POTUS. I must admit Nancy had acting chops and was better in her role than Ann – who was cast-against-type and has trouble tapping into her inner-evilness.

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It’s funny how the noir genre was so popular in the late 1940s/early 1950s that mainstream actresses such as Ann Sothern would take on such a risky role far beyond her comfort zone in order to rekindle her film career. I compare it to today’s A-List actors doing horror when their stars begin to fade. Sometimes it works, as in the case of Sandra Bullock with Bird Box, Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place, or Vera Farmiga in the hugely-successful franchise based on the first The Conjuring movie.

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But alas, Ann Sothern’s star turn in Shadow On The Wall did nothing for her career. The movie flopped by 1950 standards and lost $300,000 at the box-office. Anne would go on to have a second-successful career in television, and be a recognizable face to millions of people on TV (especially when she appeared opposite Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy). Still, this noir-lite is an interesting distraction and well worth the effort. Ann even contemplates killing a child in this melodrama – how often do you see that?!

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Child actor Gigi Perreau plays Susan Starrling, the little girl who witnesses a murder and can only remember the killer’s shadow. She’s the best of the lot in this slow pot-boiler, and the scenes with her and Nancy in play therapy trying to coax her memory of the murderer are more convincing than the rest of the movie. Get a bucket of popcorn and enjoy this black and white noir-lite tonight.

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Garbo’s Salary: Her Mega-Star Millions

20 Apr

In one of the few verifiable documents from the time of her peak fame and power, a 26-year old Greta Garbo was already a millionairess many times over. One record dated April 1931, Miss Garbo had $1,074,552.70 in just one Beverly Hills First National checking and savings account. Adjusted for inflation, that amount is $27,591,257.20 in 2019 US dollars. She was the undisputed Queen of the silver screen – and she was miserable.

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Amid the bank closings, bread and unemployment lines and an ever worsening Great Depression, Garbo was as rich and famous as you can get. Her legendary beauty radiated youthful energy from a lithe, athletic physique, topped with a face that was rumored to have stopped traffic more than once on Wilshire Boulevard (or was that Sunset Boulevard?) in the young Hollywood colony thick with stars and starlets who would give anything to be her. The naturally reclusive Garbo found Hollywood cold (isolated) from the rest of the world. Especially her native Sweden, where she was anxious to get home.

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Her MGM contract was about to expire, and she really didn’t care if she ever made another movie. Of course, this utterly-terrified L.B. Mayer and his minions at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. They weren’t about to let the golden goose fly the coup until they had her under a new contract. Come hell or high water, she was going to re-sign no matter what her demands might be.

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Garbo had come to America under contract to MGM during the silent movie era. She quickly became a mega-silent movie star, with such hits as Woman of Affairs, The Single Standard, The Temptress, The Torrent, Flesh and The Devil and a slew of other vehicles that elevated her star into the stratosphere. L.B. Mayer wasn’t about to let his investment in her just walk onto an ocean liner, never to be seen again. The movie mogul began negotiations personally with his young actress, full well knowing he wasn’t going to be able to bluff or strong-arm her like he did all his other stars, whether male or female. Garbo had one thing none of the other stars at MGM or at any other studio had: the power of indifference.

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Garbo’s MGM contract was due to expire on June 1932. Director Eric von Stroheim was ripping his non-existent hair out to complete production of As You Desire Me before his young star boarded The Gripsholm to set sail for her homeland. von Stroheim knew his star had more power than him, or the studio they both worked for. When it came to her iron will and determination when she wanted something, Garbo was an excellent negotiator with a mind for money and a strategy. She’d get more out of old Mayer than any other star, before or since. Garbo simply let the clock run out, and then demand a two-picture deal controlled under a special production company set up within the studio especially for her. An island unto itself where Garbo was free to pick her projects, as well as her director and co-stars. What star today wouldn’t want a deal like that!

Garbo had many faces…and many millions more in her Hollywood bank account!

Garbo’s 1932, two-picture deal would bind her to MGM at the tidy sum of $250,000 per picture, or $500,000 plus profit participation = $9.3 million + change today. Per her contract, L.B. Mayer cut Garbo a studio check on the spot. Standing before his desk, Garbo took the check for over $125,000 ($2.3 million) and didn’t have anywhere to put it. According to the star herself, her outfit had no pockets so she “took the biggest check I had ever seen…and stuffed it in my open shirt.”  

It turns out Garbo could make an entrance better than any movie star in history. But it was the threat of her exiting on her own terms that made her one of the most powerful women in Hollywood history.

Garbo Sighting: A NYC Rite of Passage

15 Apr

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In my upcoming novel, LOOKING FOR GARBO (Amphorae Publishing, May 7) I write about the uniquely New York City phenomenon known as a “Garbo sighting.” Virtually since the time she retired from Hollywood in 1941 and moved to NYC, people have been talking about sighting the infamously reclusive movie star in her ritual walks throughout the city. But how many of these stories were real, I wonder? How many were actually Garbo?

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Garbo had numerous tricks to avoid the average passerby: Never make eye contact. Walk in a brisk manner. Keep a perpetual scowl, if not your hand over your mouth at all times.

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The fact that an aging movie star from Hollywood’s golden age could keep the average New Yorker, equally famous for not giving a sh*t about anyone, on the lookout for her lanky, tall-drink-of-water stature, Jackie-O sunglasses and ubiquitous pout – is still something of a mystery to me.

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Maybe it was the very fact that Garbo didn’t want to be recognized that made this particular cat and mouse game so amusing for so many, over so many decades. Garbo acted very much like a caged animal when she was spotted in the wilds of downtown New York, often fleeing as fast as she could when identified with a rude finger-point or, God forbid, a request for an autograph.

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Garbo, all said and done, left her legacy to the films she made in her youth. She didn’t want to be photographed as she got older. She didn’t care what people thought of her, personally. And she never, ever sought out attention from the paparazzi who stalked her relentlessly until her death on Easter Sunday, April 15, 1990.

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Garbo lived on her own terms the latter half of her long life, simply because she couldn’t in the first half. She only attained control over her career after she became wildly famous. Then, she called the shots from how much she made a week to how many hours she worked during the workday. Garbo would have none of it and L.B. Mayer knew that if he pushed her too much – she would simply turn around and walk away forever.

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So, this is how Miss Garbo wanted to be remembered. The young, confident, gorgeous goddess of the silver screen inspiring art and love in the silent but deadly Inspiration (1931). And I’m totally okay with that because that’s when I fell in love with her, as well. Not that I wouldn’t have wanted the chance to have seen Garbo on a street corner in New York City back in the day. And if I had, I would have had the good sense and manners to turn and look away before I caught her eye.

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Garbo: Oscar-Winning Real Life Heroine

24 Feb

Greta Garbo is considered the Queen of the Hollywood Golden Age, from her silent films to her sound film classics. She was nominated four times for an Oscar for Best Actress award: In 1929, Garbo received two nominations for films Anne Christie and Romance, losing to Norma Shearer in the Oscar’s inaugural year. Then again for Camille in 1937, and finally Ninotchka in 1939. She would later receive an honorary Oscar in 1955, at the 27th Academy Awards (of course, which she refused to attend) for her “luminous and unforgettable screen performances.”

Garbo was the biggest star in Hollywood in 1939. Her Oscar-nominated star turn in comedy Ninotchka with the tag-line GARBO LAUGHS was atop a crowded box office landscape in a year that would see film classics Gone with The Wind, Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Wizard of Oz in their first run glory. But it was an off-screen role Garbo was preparing for that might be considered the greatest role of her lifetime.

It’s almost hard to comprehend being on the brink of world war today – but the average American citizen, circa 1939 had a lot of things on her mind. And if you happened to be the greatest movie star ever to grace the earth, the one the Guinness Book of World Records declared the most “beautiful woman that ever lived”  – you were apparently thinking of assassination in 1939. Not only thinking about it but preparing for it with the help of a foreign spy agency.

It was all part of a secret plot to do nothing short of save the planet from another devastating world war. Of intelligence officers from the British MI6 instructing the consummate actress in how to prepare to do the unthinkable: to shoot a man in cold blood. A man who was arguably your biggest fan. A man who wrote you fan letters begging you to be his country’s Aryan Goddess. Become the woman who would embody the epitome of his master race.

Adolf Hitler was goofy over Garbo. He obsessed over the black and white image of her dying in Camille. Watched her die over and over again in his own private screening room every night. It was true, no one died like Garbo. In the final moments of portraying the famous Camille the Parisian Courtesan, Hitler watched Garbo cross over from life into afterlife. Fascinated with the Occult, Hitler fantasized her a goddess come to life, only to die on screen for the world’s sins. He wanted to gaze upon her close up and in color. So much so that Hitler formally invited her to come to Nazi Germany under the grandest of circumstances.

But Garbo would have none of it. If she agreed to come, it would be under cover, and on orders of her spy handlers at MI6. Her cover story would be supplied by another undercover agent working for the Allied cause, Hungarian-born British producer Alexander Korda. Garbo and Korda had worked together several times during WWII. He had introduced her to William Stephenson, aka Intrepid, the British secret agency’s senior representative for the entire Western world during the war. Intrepid was thought to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s master spy: James Bond. And he would help Garbo prepare for the “Big One” – the plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Ideally, Garbo would travel to Germany, meet with Heir Hitler, and murder him before the war even began. Garbo later told her close friend Sam Green: “Mr Hitler was big on me. He kept writing and inviting me to come to Germany, and if the war hadn’t started when it did I would have gone and I would have taken a gun out of my purse and shot him because I’m the only person who would not have been searched.”

Garbo planned her trip to England (enroute to Nazi Germany) under the guise of shooting a feature film about one of her personal favorite heroines. With the help of Hedda Hopper, the biggest gossip columnist of 1939, a snippet from her popular Los Angeles Times column declared: “Great Garbo has finally got the role she’s been waiting for. She’ll sail sometime in September (1939) for England to play Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan under the direction of Clarence Brown.

Sure enough, the British Press picked up and published the ruse, complete with the film to be produced by Rank at Pinewood Studios in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire – 17 miles outside London, England.

The war in Europe began on September 3, 1939. But what if Garbo had embarked on her journey, on the eve of World War II? Made her way via ocean liner to a fateful meeting with the madman of Europe. Even to save the world, would the most glamorous movie star in the world have been able to take a gun out of her purse and pulled the trigger. Killed Hitler in cold blood? Play the heroine, like she did in Mata Hari, and Queen Christina for real? And what would the world look like today if she had succeeded?

Order Looking For Garbo: A Novel (Amphorae Publishing) coming on May 7 and find out what might have happened on Garbo’s fateful trip into history:

 

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!!

 

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.

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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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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.