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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.

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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/

 

 

Simone Simon: Original Catwoman

26 Oct

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Simone Simon (pronounced “see-moan see-moan”) is one of my favorite Golden Age movie actresses. She was born Béthune, France on April 1911 and was a delightfully kittenish actress, whose triangular face and gamine figure were often called feline, an appropriate description of an actress whose most famous American film was the classic Val Lewton production Cat People (1942). The film has been sited as a major influence to many of today’s most successful filmmakers and if you’ve ever seen it you know why. The film is creepy as hell. And Simone is absolutely mesmerizing as a woman who turns into a panther when she becomes jealous. She was the original catwoman, or, “sex kitten” for her time and was a precursor of Brigitte Bardot. That said, I think she’s more glamorous and refined than Bardot, but to each his own.

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In 1934, Simone came to the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox who offered her a contract. However, as often happened with overseas leading ladies, the studio seemed unsure what to do with her. Her first American film, Girls’ Dormitory (1936), is best remembered if at all for Tyrone Power’s first speaking part. He had just one line, “Can I have this dance?”, addressed to Simone in the final scene. It provoked such a response from the public that he was propelled to instant stardom.  Simone made an impression as well, as the New York Times critic Frank Nugent suggested “that Congress cancel a substantial part of France’s war debt in consideration of its gift of her to Hollywood”. I would agree.

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She was one of four girls finding romance in Budapest in Ladies in Love (1936), which had one of the studio’s favourite themes – working girls hiring a lavish apartment to make an impression on boyfriends. A minor comedy, Love and Hisses (1937), was followed by her best role from this period, as the tragic waif of Seventh Heaven (1937), although her leading man, James Stewart, hardly made a convincing Parisian sewer worker. But just thinking of Jimmie doing his schtick in a Paris sewer should get you to rent this movie. And the fact that Simone is absolutely stunning opposite him is worth it altogether.

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Hollywood beckoned again, and Simone returned with a bewitching portrayal of an unearthly seductress in William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), an adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s fable about a simple farmer who sells his soul to the devil. Simon later confessed she thought the piece “too heavy-handed”. That’s relative, of course, and the portrayal stands up today as a femme fatale worth losing your eternal soul to possess – at least for a little while.

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She was then cast in the film for which she is best remembered, as the tragic heroine who turns into a cat when jealous, in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942). One of the most intelligent and haunting of “B” movies, there were two scene that stand out for their iconic imagery.

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The best one is  set in a swimming pool (that’s Jane Randolph freaking out in the pool while being stalked by Simone). The other is in a deserted street and among one of the most eerily disturbing images ever put on film. Its become a classic, and was so popular in its day that, despite its brief running time (73 minutes), was often played as the main attraction. Simone Simon was now officially an A-list movie star.

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After the great success of Cat People, its producer Lewton was asked to do a sequel with the title The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Instead, Lewton and director Robert Wise made a gripping psychological thriller about a lonely child, with Simon (whose character had died at the end of the previous film) appearing as a friendly spirit. The film confused the hell out of audience even though the final film stands on its own today.

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Curse of the Cat People was basically a child’s tale on the perils of childhood, and this is where the confusion lies – in the title. Robert Wise, who co-directed the film, said they had screened the film for child psychologists who thought the film was terrific. He said that one of the psychologists then turned to him and said “However, what’s it doing with that horrible title?” This is how RKO ran the show back then (and not too much different than studios today trying to cash in while they can).

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Director, Guillermo Del Toro, a huge fan of the Lewton films, has attributed Curse of the Cat People as an inspiration for Pan’s Labyrinth, as both films are pretty much told to us through the eyes of a child. Lewton and Wise turned in one of the most unique and haunting non-horror movies ever. One that has influenced directors like Del Toro ever since. For me, it’s worth watching for Simone’s performance as a ghost. A feline-ghost, to be precise.

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An interesting footnote to Simone Simon’s story occurred when declassified records, which became available at the UK Public Records Office in 2002, revealed that during 1942 she was watched by the FBI because she was dating Dusko Popov, a “double agent” who worked for MI5. She gave him a loan of £10,000 late in 1942, before he left for Lisbon, and the couple broke up in 1943, with Simon never recovering the rather large loan. But a woman this beautiful needn’t worry about being alone for long. Another famous lover, George Gershwin the composer, wrote his famous tune  “Love Walked In” for Simone. Talk about making a lasting impression.

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Simone’s other movies in the US were minor, and at the end of the Second World War she returned to Paris, where she made her stage début in Le Square du Pérou (“Peru Square”, 1945). In 1947, she journeyed to the UK to star opposite Robert Newton in Lance Comfort’s powerful Temptation Harbour (1947). Adapted from a story by Georges Simenon, it’s a downbeat tale of a railway worker and a gold-digger. A stunningly beautiful gold-digger.  Simone would continue to work on stage and in minor movie roles in the ensuing decades, her last film being La Femme en bleu (“The Woman in Blue”), in 1973. The beautiful and captivating Simone died in her beloved Paris on February 23, 2005. I’ll always remember her as the original catwoman and an actress that transcended “B” movie vehicles to become an “A” list actress and a class-act in my book.

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This cheesecake shot is not of Simone Simon. I just couldn’t help myself. Happy Halloween!

Garbo: Her Run-In with Leo the Lion

23 Oct

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In 1925, Greta Garbo signed a contract with Louis B. Mayer’s MGM studios and came to the United States from Sweden with her director/mentor Maurice Stiller. She arrived in New York City where she languished for over 8 months before Mayer sent for her to come to Hollywood. The would-be movie star was already nervous and felt like she was being kept in a cage waiting for word on when and what she would be starting work on. It didn’t help that she could barely speak a word of English.

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In Spring 1926, Mayer finally got around to his newest star and ordered a publicity shoot to create some buzz for the Swedish Sphinx. Garbo was only 19 and must have been terrified when they drove her out to the Lion Farm where they kept Jackie the Lion (aka Leo the Lion) the MGM mascot and a quite large male. The photoshoot was conducted by Don Gillum, a renowned sport photographer at the time. You can tell in the above shot that Garbo isn’t too happy to be sitting beside the lion. And Jackie doesn’t look especially happy, either. He’s staring down the starlet as if she were trying to steal the scene.

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Garbo survived and like a true pro, agreed to mug it up with some lion cubs as well as act the lioness behind a chain-link fence. Fast forward 10 years and Garbo would be the queen of the silver screen. She would have her revenge on Louis B. Mayer and Leo the Lion by imposing a $5,000 a week salary on the notoriously stingy movie Mogul. Mayer would learn that Garbo would never again have to do anything she didn’t want to do and he would have to go along with it – or lose his biggest star for good.

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Garbo would learn that breaking into sound from silent pictures meant she could afford to keep quite. But that’s a story for another day…

Garbo’s Last Stand: New Novel Cover Reveal

13 Oct

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Excited to share cover of my very first novel out this December 8th by Fiery Seas Publishing!

Garbo’s Last Stand – a novel

James Main is stuck making cable documentaries in LA when he places an ad looking for anyone still above ground who knew glamorous movie goddess Greta Garbo. He’s delighted when salty old tabloid reporter Seth Moseley replies with the promise of an untold story of why the reclusive star left Hollywood at the height of her power and fame.

A big thanks to Tom Sylvan for the gorgeous cover design and Misty Williams at Fiery Seas for all her support!

Hope you enjoy the cover and look forward to telling you more about the book as we get closer to the release date!

Sophia Loren: Dangerous Curves

21 Sep

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Sophia Loren is one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen.

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Her exotic looks are all natural and she was happy to share them with the world.

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An exotic import, Sophia has a larger than life persona that she flaunted to maximum effect.

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But what I love her for is her class mixed with sex appeal, able to play one off the other.

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Even when lampooning her own public image, Sophia did it with grace.

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I especially like this shot of her. So stunning!

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And this one. How she could turn a corny glamor shoot into art I’ll never know.

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But even dressed down and wind-swept she was beautiful!

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Happy Birthday, Sophia! And many more…

Belinda Lee: Lady Noir

24 Aug

 

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Fate is fickle, especially when it comes to movie actresses. One day it shines upon an up and coming young actress, the next she is relegated to “sexpot” roles only to die young before her star ever ascends. Hollywood lore is littered with such tragic tales of would-be starlets. I met such a blonde beauty the other night in the B-movie 50’s noir BLACKOUT. And the blonde beauty in question is British actress Belinda Lee.

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Belinda had the movie star looks to be huge. She had the acting chops too. Not that she got the chance to flex them very much. Through a confluence of events and misfortune, Belinda was never given the shot I believe she deserved. And like so many actresses throughout time, her time in the limelight was relegated to cheap Noirs and, later, Sword & Sandal epics. But at least we have Blackout, the best Noir that Hammer Films (yes, the same studio famous for Christopher Lee Dracula movies and other such B-movie Monster cult classics) made in the mid-50’s. Starring opposite the equally relegated-to-oblivion star Dane Clark.

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In the movie, Belinda plays the daughter of a murdered millionaire who may or may not be behind his death. She plays the role convincingly enough, beguiling poor Dane with her beauty into investigating who the real killer may be – all the while twisting and turning his guts over like any self-respecting blonde bombshell with a secret will do. What I liked about this movie is that it had an original plot, but more importantly their was chemistry between Belinda and Dane. I actually cared about what happened to these characters and wanted to see them end up together in the end, even if she was bad for his health. Hell, isn’t that the point of most noirs – even when you win the girl you lose?

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The film was shot for nickels in the streets of London and did little for Belinda’s career. And try as she might to be taken seriously, her looks were her worst enemy. She would continue to work but in increasingly cheesier supporting roles in some of the more tawdry and forgettable technicolor extravaganzas. So, what is a would-be serious actress to do in her mid-twenties stuck in a rut? Belinda moved to Italy, of course. But instead of attracting quality material – instead Belinda ended up working in tawdry Italian B-movies, speaking in a language that wasn’t even her own. Before long, her marriage crumbled and she was implicated in an affair with a government official that would end his career and send her flying off to America to ply her trade stateside.

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Belinda had just wrapped a film in Las Vegas and was on her way to a vacation in Los Angeles when she was killed in a car crash in San Bernardino at the age of 26. The would be star never had the chance to strut her stuff on Hollywood & Vine. I’d like to think that she could have reinvented herself in classier fare – the kind of vehicles that made Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr household names. Alas, it was not to be for beautiful Belinda. All we have of her legacy now is a page on Wikipedia, some hard to find films and the above-par noir classic BLACKOUT.

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Then again, how many people are remembered at all – let alone have their moment in a dark, moody murder mystery set in a turbulent post-WWII noir. In a way, Belinda was luckier than most who shoot for the stars and come up just short. She had the chance, she just never got the breaks but will always be remembered for her beauty and a few moments of celluloid gold. And maybe, just maybe, blogs like this one will keep her candle burning in the pantheon of near-forgotten starlets. A reminder of how much work goes into making an actress a star but without luck and the breaks necessary to open doors – comes and goes like a freight train in the night.

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I enjoyed my one night with Belinda very much and I encourage any film aficionado, cinefile or anglophile for that matter to seek out Belinda Lee in BLACKOUT for their own night of dark pleasure. She won’t disappoint. Just remember never to turn your back on her.

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And one more look of beautiful Belinda Lee for the road.

Lauren Bacall: To Have and Have Not

17 Aug

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In the wake of Lauren Bacall’s passing this week it dawned on me that I have never written about her before or the fact that I grew up watching her and her forever leading man, one Humphrey Bogart. I’ve been a Bogart fanatic ever since I can remember. The guy remains my favorite male actor simply because he was the coolest of them all. I watched (or at least tried to) watch everything he had ever done – from Professor X (truly bizarre) to IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) the darkest noir he ever starred in and was incidentally about an unstable screenwriter (an oxymoron if there ever was one). But I digress, this is about Bogart’s greatest Leading Lady both on and off-screen: the ever-underrated Ms. Bacall.

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Lauren’s angles were legendary from the start. She was the personification of a cat in human female form. She watched you like a cat ready to pounce on its prey and it was that cat-like quality that brought her to the attention of Bogart when they were casting TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944). Of all the co-stars Bogart would ever have, Bacall was the closest in cool factor to the man who starred in the first noir, THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and became the cinema icon he is today. Of course, I will always love Mary Astor who starred opposite him in that most excellent of Noirs as the prototypical femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. But whereas Mary played cool cats – Lauren WAS a cool cat playing a human.

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Lauren was 19 when she met Bogart (who was 44) on the set of To Have And Have Not and they married not long after the film was completed. They were married until Bogart’s death in 1957 at the too-young age of 57. Yet in those thirteen years I have no doubt that Bogart was his happiest because he had found his soul mate in Bacall. And Lauren, the adoring wife that she was – curtailed her career to support Bogey as well as raise their two children. However, when she did appear on screen it was opposite Bogart in three of their greatest movies – THE BIG SLEEP (1946), DARK PASSAGE (1947) and the classic KEY LARGO (1948).

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Watching The Big Sleep is watching Bacall come into her own opposite Bogart. She’s as tough as they come, which is to say it’s only a matter of time before her steely-exterior begins to buckle and melt in time to let Bogart in by the end of the movie. Their rapport is so full of energy and sexual chemistry that it transcends the often impossible plot-line. Bacall earned her stripes in The Big Sleep and made her into a legitimate star in her own right. No longer was she the 19 year old ingenue but a woman who could play complex characters opposite a giant of the cinema. I heartily recommend everyone watch The Big Sleep with an eye towards catching Bacall’s understated delivery as a very bad rich girl. A role that has rightly become a cinematic archetype in the subsequent decades.

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As happens in many a Hollywood Studio era film (as well as every other facet of life) DARK PASSAGE was a mess from the start. Bacall mentions in one of her interviews that the script was, well, crap and incomplete when she and Bogart started filming. But even with sub-par material nobody cares because hey, it’s Bogart & Bacall. That and the title are worth a viewing…maybe with some fresh popped corn on a dark and stormy night. And maybe it will get you in the mood for a double-feature. Rather, the main event and essential-viewing for any Bacall retrospective: the astoundingly powerful Key Largo.

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Wow, is Key Largo good. Great, in fact. With a supporting cast of legends such as Lionel Barrymore and Edward G. Robinson, not to mention directed by John Huston (reteamed with his Maltese Falcon leading man) Key Largo has something for every classic movie watcher. And what makes me giddy every time I watch this movie is watching Bogart and Bacall fall in love all over again. She the respectable and grieving widow of a fallen soldier opposite Bogart’s disillusioned WWII hero who rises to the occasion one more time to wipe out the world of villians like Robinson’s Rocko. Every time I watch this it’s obvious that every role has been cast by a professional actor at the top of their game – not the least of which is Ms. Bacall. Again, her acting is understated but no less intense than the combustible sexuality she portrayed in To Have and Have Not. Only this time she is more mature, more self-assured with the womanly-sensuality of a soul that has loved and lost — and slowly opening herself up to love again. It is a wonderful performance by a wonderfully beautiful actress who is learning her craft and excelling with every role. I love falling for Bacall in Key Largo. The hurricane hitting landfall in the movie is obviously a metaphor for the conflict occurring between the characters (and the opposing idealogies they represent in post-WWII America). Less obvious is the transition it marks which was occurring in cinema at that time. For me, this was the last movie Bogart would star in as a realistic love-interest. Don’t get me wrong, he was still knocking it out of the park opposite Katherine Hepburn in THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951). But in Key Largo BACALL is the eye of the storm – the emotional center of the movie and a modern heroine who can stand on her own for what she believes in.

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Lauren Bacall would come fully out of Bogart’s shadow in films, TV and especially the theater after his passing in 1957. She was the embodiment of class and brass balls – a woman as famous for her intelligence (she was a political activist in addition to a fashion icon) as she was her movie-star looks. And what endeared her to millions was her stalwart loyalty to the legacy of Bogart himself. After all, she was a strong woman who was respected for her integrity and prowess off-screen as much as on – something Bogart was known for as well. The two really were kindred spirits in this world. Just like I know they are now, together again in the next. Bogart & Bacall in Heaven. Now that’s a movie I’d run out and see any day.

Jennifer O’Neill: Summer Lover

4 Jul

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For most of us there are images that stick in the mind long after their context fades away. That was this image of Jennifer O’Neill in SUMMER OF ’42 (1971). Actually, it was this nearly identical image in black & white below:

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Taken a few seconds apart, they are virtually identical except for Jennifer’s hand placement. The Black & White version of this photograph is famous (available as a poster, it remains a seminal image from the early 70’s) while the color-version is not. What makes the difference is the virtually subliminal image the second image conveys. In the movie, Jennifer plays a wife who’s husband is engaged in WWII. She is lonely, waiting for word from her husband while living in a beach house over the summer during one of the worst chapters in the war’s history. Her wedding ring in the second photograph is visible wherein the first image it is not. And it makes all the difference in the photograph, the character in the story and in the classic film.

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Summer of ’42 is a novel by Herman Raucher which the film was based. It was shot in 1969-70 and released in 1971. The film catapulted Jennifer into stardom, as much for her wholesome looks (the hope of a generation of Americans some have called the greatest) as for her action – which my opinion is superb. In fact, Jennifer would go on to act in almost 30 films throughout the 70’s and early 80’s but never again attain the starry heights of Summer of ’42.

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Jennifer is a contemporary of Katherine Ross, Charlotte Rampling and several other actresses I’ve covered in this blog. What sets her apart is that Summer of ’42 was her movie, a star-making vehicle if there ever was one because the audience felt her pain and sense of loss while at the same time taking solace in the arms of a very young paramour during a summer infamous for death. She is so young, so alive and so beautiful that she embodies the hopes and ideals of what that generation of Americans stood for. At the same time, the subject matter was highly controversial because it portrayed an affair between a married woman (albeit war widow) and an under-age boy. By today’s standards the film’s so-called love scenes are chaste, but back in ’71 it was hot-stuff. And even today, no man can deny watching the movie that having an affair with Jennifer O’Neill in a summer house would be an affair to remember – under any circumstances.

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Summer of ’42 is a beautifully-shot movie with an absolutely gorgeous actress in the prime of her youth and career. It is one of those rare cinematic occasions where you literally can’t imagine anyone else in the role. Sure, it has been remade in various incarnations since then – but none were able to replicate the magic. I think this is in large part to Jennifer’s ability to captivate with her performance as much as her looks. Even more, it is saturated in the hues and values of summer – that special time we all slow down, enjoy the sun and beach and invariably reflect on our lives; what’s been, what is and what will be. And for me, that’s the magic spell summer and Summer of ’42 cast no matter what the generation is watching it.

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One more shot of gorgeous Jennifer and Happy July 4th!