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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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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!

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.

 

Sharon Tate: Gone But Never Forgotten

21 Nov

Sharon Tate Visiting The Set Of Rosemary's Baby

 

One of the advantages of having older brothers is being introduced to pop culture from earlier generations that you would not otherwise be exposed to. This was true for music (Blonde, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Boston), film (Apocalypse Now, Clockwork Orange, Monty Python’s Holy Grail) and, above all, iconic beautiful women. In the last category, my brothers did not discriminate: they had posters and calendars of blondes, brunettes, redheads, even a beautiful bald woman from some far off African tribe. I knew quite a few of them by name – Debbie Harry, Isabella Rosselini, Barbi Benton, Candice Bergen, Patricia Rhomberg, Nastassja Kinski…but one day I stumbled across one staring down at me from my brother’s slanted attic bedroom wall.

“Who’s the blonde?” I asked.

“”Sharon Tate.”

“Who’s that?”

“She was an actress.”

“Was?”

“Don’t bother me.”

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The answer sufficed for a couple months. But then every time I went into my older brother’s room, my eyes were drawn back up to the beautiful face staring down at me with those large, brown eyes. I was young enough that the concept of this young, luminous and vibrant woman was no longer living didn’t fully compute. I naively believed that only old people died. I asked my brother again.

“How did she die?”

“She was murdered.”

“What? Why?”

“She was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

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The wrong place at the wrong time. It still didn’t compute. Was she caught up in some natural disaster? Another couple months passed and one day I stumbled across my brother’s paperback copy of “Helter Skelter”. Dog-eared and stained from God knows what, I opened the book and began reading about the horrible Manson Family Murders that occurred on August 9, 1969. How Sharon, married to film director Roman Polanski and 8 and a half months pregnant – begged for her unborn baby’s life, to no avail. I stared up at the woman’s face and became enraged for her. For the senseless loss of not one but two innocent lives.

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Decades later, I still remember that first great rush of indignant rage I felt when I was young. The sense of loss of what could have been for a stunning young woman who seemed to be so full of life. Sharon had had a burgeoning film and TV career (she almost played the lead in Rosemary’s Baby) but more she had a baby with a man she was wild about and a future bright with possibilities. Until, one night she had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time for a bunch of murderous imbeciles being led by a frustrated, wannabe musician loser. Manson is nothing more than a garden variety sociopath and it still infuriates me that he remains above ground making news today when he should really be six feet under. But then I realize even he serves a purpose; he exists to remind us that victim’s of violent crime must have at least as many rights as their killers do under our laws. And thanks to Sharon’s late mother Doris, sisters Patti and Debra the victim’s of violent crime who cannot speak for themselves have a say through their family members, especially in parole hearings for the likes of criminals like Manson. I know while they are alive – he will never be free.

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Sharon Tate was a beautiful young woman who by all accounts was a gentle, kind and generous soul. It still doesn’t make sense to the young child I was that such a life could be snuffed out for nothing at all. But it does give the adult I now am some solace that her existence and that of her unborn child’s still has relevance to this day. She wanted to be a star in her time and I believe she would have been if fate hadn’t intervened and given her life a different role. If we lived in a perfect world she would still be with us as would her son and Manson would be long gone and forgotten. But the world is what it is and for many of my older brother’s era, the 60’s officially ended on that summer day in August, 1969. And some day soon, Manson will be gone but Sharon’s legacy will go on. Not as a victim but as a woman who died a hero and whose death gave birth to thousands of victim’s having the ability to speak from beyond the grave for what is right and just.

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One of my favorite photos of the beautiful Sharon Tate.