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Queen Christina: Garbo’s Triumph!

28 Apr

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In 1933, prior to the release of Queen Christina, nobody outside of the MGM Studios executive offices knew whether Garbo, the Queen of the Silver Screen was ever going to return to film.

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The year before, Garbo and Louis B. Mayer had slugged it out in contract negotiations that changed forever the power structure of the Hollywood studio system. Afterward, Garbo left for Sweden on an extended vacation, while L.B. Mayer licked his wounds. The public knew nothing of the outcome, and MGM decided to keep it that way capitalizing on the public interest of their favorite movie star and the future of her career.

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Garbo left America in 1932 knowing she’d be back. She had scored a lucrative, 2-picture deal with her studio, and more important to her had creative control than ever before. Garbo could pick her next 2 projects, including the director and her co-stars. It was more power than any other star, male or female had ever had. It was either that, Garbo threatened Mayer, or her leaving Hollywood forever. The old Mogul blinked.

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Garbo was at the peak of her career. She had arranged for Mayer to create her own production company within the MGM studio system. It was a stroke of genius having her own team, who would do nothing but Garbo projects. And their very first production would be the ambitious historical biopic – Queen Christina of Sweden.

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Loose on historical fact, the lavish production was nonetheless a starring vehicle like none other. Garbo’s public persona was at the center of the saga about the solo Queen who abdicated her throne in order to live as a normal, average woman. Garbo embodied the role as a declaration of her own independence from the studio system. She even got to wear pants in the role, which was unheard of in 1933!

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Garbo insisted that her old, silent movie co-star John Gilbert play opposite her as the Spanish Envoy and love interest to Queen Christina. L.B. Mayer all but had a heart attack. He hated John Gilbert and had tried to destroy the actors career when he stumbled into sound film several years before: Mayer had Gilbert’s voice electronically raising 2 octaves – making him sound ludicrous. But Mayer knew there would be no getting around Garbo now. His female star had all the control, and with Garbo’s star ascending around the world – he had no choice but to sign Gilbert.

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Garbo got her way, and Mayer was able to capitalize on her return to the silver screen. The film was marketed as “Garbo’s Triumphant Return” to the movies. The film made back it’s money and more, grossing over $600,000 in it’s initial 1933 run. Although MGM would declare a loss by cooking their books, it would be discovered decades after Mayer’s death that the film was actually a financial success for the studio.

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Regarded as one of Garbo’s greatest roles, Queen Christina was a romantic vision of the Queen who valued life, art, music and creativity over war and domination. It would propel her dominance over the world cinema for the rest of the decade – and continue Garbo’s reign in Hollywood. Mayer and MGM would go on to make millions off its mercurial star, and allowed them to dominate film in Europe as well as America as can be seen by the foreign language one sheets and movie posters advertising the film:

Later regarded as Garbo’s signature role, Queen Christina was ahead of it’s time especially for the portrayal of women in film. Garbo had a female love interest at the beginning of the film (alluding to her rumored lesbianism). Her royal court wished her to marry in order to produce an heir, though she demurred (as did the real Queen Christina). Best of all, Garbo showed her contempt for men and their penchant for making war. This would become a re-occurring theme in her career and is at the center of my upcoming debut novel, Looking For Garboavailable now for pre-order and to be released on May 7, 2019.

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Garbo Sighting: A NYC Rite of Passage

15 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Am The Night: The Black Dahlia’s Final Resting Place is in Oakland, CA

27 Jan

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On January 15, 1947, in the early morning hours of a chilly Wednesday in Los Angeles Betty Bersinger took a stroll with her daughter and spotted what they thought was a mannequin tossed onto the ground. Dumped in an abandoned lot in Leimert Park, the mannequin turned out to be the body of a murdered young woman: 22-year old Elizabeth Short aka The Black Dahlia.

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The LA press chose the name Black Dahlia after a film noir released shortly before the murder starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd called The Blue Dahlia. I was shocked to find that Elizabeth Short is one of the most famous people buried in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, near to where I live. But how did the Black Dahlia’s final resting place end up being a sprawling, Oakland cemetery instead of Los Angeles where she was killed?

Short’s mother, Phoebe M. Short, arrived at San Francisco Airport on Jan. 18, 1947 – three days after her daughter’s body was found in the Los Angeles lot. Phoebe had flown from her home in Medford, Massachusetts  to see two of her five daughters. Virginia West, who lived in Berkeley, greeted her at the airport. But Elizabeth had never shown for the family reunion and nobody in her family knew why.

Elizabeth Short, with blue-green eyes and raven hair – wanted to be a movie star. And like hundreds of thousands of young women before and after her, she came to Los Angeles with stars in her eyes and very little else. No family or friends, the Medford woman would often date men to get a meal – not an uncommon occurrence for a struggling actress who had more ambition than connections in the City of Angels.

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The gruesome murder generated several weeks of newspaper headlines in LA’s four major dailies. Reporters started referring to Short as the Black Dahlia, and would do anything to get a scoop on the crime of the century. An ambitious young rewrite man from the LA Examiner named Wain Sutton tracked down Phoebe Short while in San Francisco Bay Area. Sutton told Mrs. Short that Elizabeth had won a contest and wanted background information on her for the public prize announcement. But after squeezing as much information out of the mom about her dead daughter, the city editor told the brash reporter to inform Phoebe of her daughter’s ghastly demise.

The LA Examiner flew Phoebe Short down to Los Angeles in exchange for an exclusive. But the distraught Mother refused to identify her daughter’s remains for two days, preferring to remember Elizabeth as she had been. Phoebe appeared at the Los Angeles District Attorney Inquest on Jan. 22, 1947. The Black Dahlia’s body arrived in Oakland a day later. The LAPD conducted house-to-house searches for the next month to find her murderer but never did. The case is still unsolved.

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Elizabeth Short was laid to rest in Mountain View Cemetery on January 25, 1947, ten days after her mutilated body had been found by a mother and her young daughter. In attendance were her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and a pair of reporters. Over 70 years after her death, a Black Dahlia cocktail is served at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, where Short was last seen alive, and a new TNT miniseries called I Am The Night sheds light on her murder case.

Whoever Elizabeth Short’s killer was, they were someone looking for publicity. Over the ensuing months after her murder – the killer sent letters to the press signed mockingly as the “Black Dahlia Avenger,” and distributed packages containing her clothes to media outlets. This lasted throughout the investigations and made Elizabeth Short more famous than any Hollywood starlet for the rest of 1947.

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Today, Elizabeth is best remembered for the horrific details of her death. But her modest gravemarker in the Oakland Hills gives no indication of her infamous murder case, or her ambition to be famous one day. It simply reads, “Elizabeth Short, Daughter July 29, 1924 – January 15, 1947.” But her fans know better and have been coming to Oakland to give their respects more and more over the years. They pass by the Ghirardelli Chocolate family crypt, turn a sharp left and climb the tall stack of steep cement stairs to get to Elizabeth’s final resting place. For them, she’s the reason they came to East Bay, to reflect on her abbreviated, short life and  place their Black Dahlias.

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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Nancy Allen: I Want To Hold Her Hand

15 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…to her breakout in Carrie…

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

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

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To her sexy, smart turn in Dressed To Kill…

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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Brooke Adams: Days of Heaven

12 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vera Miles: Hitchcock Blonde with Brains

22 Mar

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Vera Miles was beautiful. Vera Miles was talented. Vera Miles was not to be messed with. The only reason why Vera Miles never became a household name is because the man that intended to make her such, Alfred Hitchcock, demanded her complete loyalty and admiration. Unlike other Hitchcock blondes, however, Vera was not one to take any shit from the director. That is, not in the copious amounts he piled onto his other actresses with impunity.

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If you mention Vera Miles today, most people will need context to remember this blonde beauty. That comes in one tidy, six letter word: PSYCHO (1960). Vera played Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) concerned sister who helps track down her killer in easily one of the most shocking film reveals of all-time. The role is iconic today, but back in the day it was a thankless role for an actress who was a star in her own right. Vera was simply fulfilling her contractual obligation to Hitchcock, who no doubt cast her as a way to rub salt in any wounds left over from their meteoric fallout. Ironic, then, how it is the role that Vera is best remembered for to this day.

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Very came to attention in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (1956) and was a minor revelation in the movie. But again it wasn’t a major role that would jettison Vera to stardom. Those opportunities were to come, however, after Hitchcock saw some early footage of the movie and likened the statuesque blonde with a strong constitution and a magnetic screen presence to his ideal of a leading lady.

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Here’s Vera and the ever stoic John Wayne from THE SEARCHERS.

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THE WRONG MAN (1956) was Hitchcock and Vera’s first movie together. She was fantastic opposite Henry Fonda in the documentary-style suspense movie. But it was only to be a testing-ground for Hitchcock to groom is bombshell protege into the kind of movie star he envisioned for all his female leads: Blonde, virtuous, always standing by her man and, ultimately conforming to his egomanical will. The fact that Hitchcock misjudged Vera Miles so badly in regards to his domineering ways is curious. Of course, she was an actress with great looks and talent. But she also had brains and willpower to resist his creepy advances and perverted sense of entitlement. It was only a matter of time before the two would come to blows, metaphorically-speaking.

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A fairly-silly publicity shot for THE WRONG MAN with Fonda and Miles.

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Vera and Hitch on the set of THE WRONG MAN, circa 1956. Their professional relationship would deteriorate from here on.

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Hitchcock never spared any expense when it came to his leading ladies and Vera was no exception. Though she was married by 1958 to Gordon Scott and already had two children, Hitchcock still considered her his property. He obsessed over her looks both in public and private and determined that she should only ever be clothed in White, Black or Grey tones. This was recorded for posterity in the production stills for VERTIGO (1958) in which Vera was to star opposite Jimmy Stewart. For anyone who has ever seen the movie, the role required Vera to be the focus of an obsessive man who would ultimately lead to her death. A smart woman who didn’t need to be told how autobiographical the material was for Hitchcock, Vera either consciously or unconsciously decided to become pregnant with her third child before production could begin. Enraged, Hitch had to recast the role, finding Kim Novak at the last moment. I have to confess that Kim Novak is one of the best casting choices in all of film when it came to VERTIGO. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role so well and that includes Vera. Funny how everything worked out for the best but Hitch would never forgive Vera for her transgression.

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When it came time for Vera to fulfill her contract with Hitchcock it was for easily his most iconic and successful film, PSYCHO (1960). What I love is that Vera considered the role a walk-on part to get Hitch the hell out of her life. Still very beautiful and at the top of her game, she underplayed the role brilliantly – making her scream at the end when she finds MOTHER in the fruit-cellar all the more horrifying. Vera is perfect casting and will always be remembered for this reaction. Once again, fate played a hand in making film history. It would be the last time actress and director would work together. And both of them can thank each other for cementing their places in cinematic and pop culture history.

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Interestingly enough, Vera’s blonde locks were already shorn for another production when Hitchcock beckoned her to play in Psycho. She had to wear a wig in addition to frumpy clothes that Hitchcock no doubt tried to humiliate the actress with. But true to form, Vera rose above petty grievances and turned in a pivotal performance, grounding the second-half of the film after Janet Leigh’s untimely departure ala the famous shower scene.

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Very would go on to play opposite Jimmy Stewart in WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962). A classic western, she turned in another sympathetic performance that would further confirm her acting chops in addition to beauty.

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Vera Miles roles in Hollywood productions took their natural course for actresses of a certain age, though she would continue to work in smaller pictures and television over the ensuing decades. But what I love about Vera as much as her beauty and talent is her strong spirit and ability to take and ultimately leave Tinseltown on her own terms. She never regretted losing the role in VERTIGO because she said she got a son out of the bargain. She was too grounded, too smart it seemed to take the kind of crap megalo-manical directors like Hitchcock required their actresses take in return for becoming immortal on film. But in her own way, Vera Miles did become immortal, albeit in a smaller-role that was her way of fulfilling a contract to a man that gave her the creeps. And now that everyone knows, thanks to Tippi Hedren another Hitchcock blonde, just how creepy and abusive Hitch was to his talent – it seems like a very smart proposition indeed for Vera to have vamoosed when she did from the director’s grasp. Vera is a testament to women who work on their own terms and take their lumps, succeeding in the face of adversity in an old boy’s club that exists to this day.

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One more look at that class act in the fruit-cellar about to scream her brains out. It doesn’t get any better than this, does it?

 

FDR: President was Wannabe Screenwriter

20 Mar

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That’s right, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our 32nd President (1933-1945), wanted to be a screenwriter before he got into politics. Here’s the article from 1947 illustrating how Paramount Pictures went about letting down gently the future Leader of the free world.

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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!