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Live Long and Prosper: My Ben Cooper Spock Halloween Costume

8 Sep

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It seems like only yesterday that my older brother Tom and I watched Star Trek on the family’s old Sony 15-inch color television set. I wasn’t sure whether the technicolor of the original show was reduced even more by our tiny set (our oldest brother watched the first moon-landing on it – that’s how old this TV was) but every show came across as if drenched in vibrant, primary colors. So, it wasn’t much of a stretch when September came around and we made our traditional pilgrimage to the Bantam or Woolworth Five N’ Dime to make the most important decision a kid had to make: What Ben Cooper Halloween costume, with their larger than life masks and uber-bright costume fronts displaying your favorite character – would you get?

Like everything else in life (I would learn this the hard way later on) what I ended up being for Halloween came down to timing. Specifically, how long it took to convince Mom that you had to get your Halloween costume NOW because if you waited too long, you’d end up as something stupid (i.e. all that was left on the shelf). The high-ticket items like Spider-Man, Superman, Batman or Spock would be long gone if you procrastinated about such an important decision. It happened every year. We’d wait too long to go to Woolworth’s, I’d have to “settle” for some inferior pop-culture iconic costume character meant for a little kid like “tweety-bird”, then suffer the indignity of seeing some wretched neighbor’s kid on my street wearing the exact costume I should be wearing on Halloween night. Such was the case with Spock from Star Trek.

Spock was the best character on the original show, hands down. He was smart, strong, logical in an illogical universe, and had those awesome ears. He had the added benefit of being tall and skinny, which I was for my age, too. He projected such a commanding presence, in fact, that I felt I would be “in charge” on Halloween night if I went out as him. No Captain Kirk for me. Spock was the real brains behind the operation, and with my other props – a tricorder, communicator, and phaser set on stun – I could explore my neighborhood as if an alien world full of exotic and dangerous creatures; all dressed up in Halloween costumes so you couldn’t easily identify what they were behind those brightly-colored, deceptive masks.

Alas, we never made it to the five-n-dime on time to get Spock. It might have been that our local Woolworth’s didn’t rate more than one or two of him, or, more likely that Spock wasn’t as popular in other households as he was in ours and they may never have ordered a Ben Cooper Spock costume in the first place. So, I would have to go out as Spider-Man again, or, god forbid wear the same Batman costume I’d worn the previous year. That’s why I always kept my mouth shut and never complained to my Mom. Because in a kid’s world back then, going out in the same costume on two consecutive Halloweens was a fate almost as bad a the kid whose Mom kept him home that night because he had something stupid like walking pneumonia. After all, Halloween was all about the action. And the action was walking around in your neighborhood in the pitch black behind a Ben Cooper mask – a new one that smelled like vinyl and made you sweat no matter how cold it was outside. And in that dark abyss of the imagination, whoever said I couldn’t “act” like I was Spock, even if I wasn’t wearing the costume?

But then a wonderful thing happened. Thirty years after the fact, I was finally able to purchase my Ben Cooper Spock costume on ebay. I’m a little embarrassed to say how excited I was when I opened the brown box that it came in the mail and from the first second I laid eyes on Spock’s mask staring up at me (from within the famous cellophane window all Ben Cooper costumes came in) I was beamed back in time. Spock brought me right back to those days I spent watching the original show with my brother Tom. He brought me back to those chilly Halloween nights I’d wished I’d been dressed as TV’s favorite Vulcan. But most of all, that Spock costume with it’s bright mask and tableau on the front, transported me back to when our neighborhood transformed for a precious few hours into a dark and wondrous galaxy, populated by strange yet familiar colorful characters, all running around together under a blanket of stars.

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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!

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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Dorothy Malone: Smart and Sexy

9 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And one more random glamor shot from a bygone era.

Monica Bellucci: The New Bond Girl is a Woman

15 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman: Oscar Royalty

22 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tippi Hedren: Animal Attraction

19 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who has the bigger mane?

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Family day at the pool.

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

 

History in Action: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

9 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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