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Barbara Payton: Ticking Bombshell

26 Apr

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Few may remember the beautiful Barbara, a contemporary of Marilyn Monroe. Like Monroe, Barbara was a beautiful blonde with serious acting chops and a lust for life, sex and drugs. Unlike Monroe, Barbara’s addictions overshadowed her talent before she was able to become famous. And after only a few roles in the limelight, she drowned in a dark pool of alcohol. Today, the only reason people remember her is because she is one of the biggest cautionary tales to ever come out of Hollywood.

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Barbara Payton started out as did many starlets in B-movies, Noir Thrillers that cast her as the femme fatale. And like many starlets, she bided her time, giving the most she could from these small roles and trying to build a career within the restraints of the studio system. A system that seemed to have only two roles for women: The whore or the wife who is an angel.

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Barbara was a statuesque blonde with dangerous curves and an intelligence that made the latter role of adoring wife none to believable, at least in 1950’s America. But as an actress on her way up she had all the right ingredients – talent, beauty and above all a distinctive look. And like many contemporaries, she enjoyed herself in the Hollywood nightlife. Maybe a little too much for her studio bosses.

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The sad truth of it is that Barbara had everything going for her but she wanted to act like one of the boys at a time when women were supposed to be chaste and virtuous even though the characters they portrayed onscreen where not. This was only one of Hollywood’s incredible list of double standards when it came to actresses or any woman who wanted to be taken seriously in the business. But it was probably the biggest rule in tinseltown, especially for actresses who had not attained enough power and stardom to even think about calling their own shots.

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Barbara’s big break came after she was beat out for the Marilyn Monroe part in The Asphalt Jungle by, well, Marilyn Monroe. She screen-tested for Jimmy Cagney and his producer brother William for the violent noir thriller Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye in 1950. Brother Cagney was so smitten with Payton’s sensual appeal and beauty that her contract was drawn as a joint agreement between William Cagney Productions and Warner Brothers, who paid Payton a salary of $5,000 a week. This was a huge sum for an actress yet to demonstrate star power at the box-office.

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Barbara hit a home run in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.  She held her own among a cast of Hollywood veterans and alongside super-star Cagney. Payton’s portrayal of the hardened, seductress who Cagney’s character ultimately double-crosses, was critically praised. Her acting chops were finally recognized and screen charisma cemented in the audience’s mind. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was Barbara’s career high. The moment all actresses wait for to break through. But it wasn’t to last.

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Barbara had stiff competition from Monroe, Mansfield, Turner and a host of other blonde bombshells. However, her biggest enemy was herself as news spread of her partying and lascivious activities in Hollywood. She could drink anyone of her male counterparts under the table. She also took anyone she fancied to bed. This left little to the imagination for an industry that is build on illusion. Even her handlers, agents and manager could not get her to curtail her lustful habits. They gave her one more big push, however, with another A-List film to see if she could pull herself out of her own personal and professional tailspin.

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Her next two onscreen performances were opposite Gary Cooper in Dallas and Gregory Peck in Only the Valiant. Both were westerns and ultimately lackluster box-office affairs. More depressing, they where roles that failed to highlight Barbara’s skills as a talented actress. Payton’s career quickly declined and found her plying her trade in such horrible horror fare as the Bride of the Gorilla (1951) opposite rising star Raymond Burr.

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Unfortunately, Payton’s excessive partying, drinking, and liaisons with men of dubious reputation killed her credibility and alienated the Hollywood power brokers. Barbara was to become a lost soul walking Hollywood’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams. She was unable to acknowledge that her once-promising career had crashed and burned. She fed her illusions with drugs, alcohol and men who used, abused and discarded her.

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The once-promising career of Barbara Payton slid down the sewer of skid row in Los Angeles. Her descent was so horrifying that it garnered her a different kind of fame – one that the likes of Lindsey Lohan are replaying for the public today. But unlike LiLo, Barbara would not get any second, third or fourth chances. Her last gasp was a tell-all memoir that was ghost-written and for which Barbara would only get $1,000 in drinking money. And drink she did.

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The paperback was a big seller, depicting how a beautiful young woman who had the world by the tail one minute, descends into depraved alcoholism and is forced to prostitute herself on the very street she once imagined having her Star on the Walk of Fame. To top it off, Barbara was portrayed as remorseless, seemingly determined at every turn to self-destruct even while denying that her acting career was over.

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The once-beautiful Barbara Payton ended up where she began, moving back into her parent’s home and joining them in alcoholic binges that would last weeks. She would die of heart and liver failure at the age of 39. It is truly a sad tale but not one that should ever be forgotten. And not one that can be entirely blamed on Hollywood. Because Hollywood success only magnifies the demons we each hold within ourselves, and hopefully in check. But fame very often fuels those inner demons and can destroy us faster than anyone or anything else. I’d like to think that if Barbara never became famous she may have lived a normal, healthy and long life. But that’s probably being as naive as Barbara was about her career.

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All we have left of her are beautiful, black and white images of the once-beautiful starlet who showed so much promise. I sincerely hope that Barbara’s story will find a wider audience some day because I think she struggled with her addictions more than people of her day realized. Mental illness and addiction are still not fully understood today but at least we as a society know they are a disease and deserve our compassion and attention. Maybe young people today will someday look back at Barbara Payton and learn from her story rather than be forced to repeat it. Maybe then her time in the limelight will have been well spent and her painful death not in vain.

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A couple more shots of a healthy, glowing Barbara Payton in her prime when she had her whole life and career ahead of her.

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Dorothy Malone: Smart and Sexy

9 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And one more random glamor shot from a bygone era.

Maika Monroe: It Follows

29 Mar

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This weekend’s breakout movie hit is IT FOLLOWS, a slasher movie that begs, borrows and steals from many different genre classics that is surprisingly more than the some of its stolen parts. But more than anything that makes IT FOLLOWS work is its star, Maika Monroe. And boy does the director know it because a fair portion of the movie rests on this rising young star’s face in close-up. So much so that you not only know the movie lives or dies by its lead-actresses understated performance, but that the movie-makers are relying on the character’s point-of-view more than any other narrative device to suck you into this new twist on the seemingly inexhaustible zombie movie.

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Maika is perfectly cast in the role of the beleaguered heroine. Like so many horror movie scream queens before her, evil itself is going to pay for her having sex. The twist here is that once she has sex and is being stalked by evil (conveniently passed on by her lover to her) she has to have sex AGAIN to pass it on to the next person. I won’t spoil the twist to this ultra-simple device because that would be to take away from the enjoyment of seeing how Maika’s character is going to get away – or not – from her apparent fate in this moody, gloomy, often existential exercise in ultra-low (read: no) budget horror fare that is going to make a ton of money one it’s limited theatrical run is over and it haunts cable forever.

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Now here’s the good part: IT FOLLOWS works on a couple different levels because the filmmaker’s know their genre and know their audience. There is, in this order, the ever-popular loss of innocence, existential malaise of teenage ensemble cast followed by teenage angst like you wouldn’t believe, general fear of the unknown and, last but not least, distrust of anybody over 30. The genius is that the filmmaker’s STEAL from some unexpected, classic psychological thriller sources dating back to the 60’s – Michelangelo Antonioni’s BLOW UP (1966) being my favorite. In fact, they use the classic BLOW UP as a template for exuding dread – many, many moody POV shots of rustling trees, lakes and nature in all its glorious indifference to our collective human fate that for a minute I thought I was watching (or wanting, at least) to be watching the counter-culture classic.

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Now here’s the bad part: IT FOLLOWS is so self-aware of who their target audience is (tweens into early teens and maybe a sprinkling of college-age) that it misses the opportunity to become a true genre classic because of that narrow focus. I get it, of course. Not many people my age seem to go out to movies anymore, let alone will blow good money on a movie marketed at teenagers with the requisite scream-shots that have become so cliched after BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY have blazed a path for films shot on digital video with next to no production value. But there again, I think the filmmaker’s (either consciously or unconsciously) have sold themselves short. They obviously know their craft and have the sense to steal from the best, albeit with a twist here and their to merit the hype and attention their getting. What sucks to me is that they didn’t take it one more level up, and by that I mean do what LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) filmmaker’s did and make this a story for the ages – all the ages.

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But back to the best part about IT FOLLOWS and that is it’s breakout star, Maika Monroe. She’s young, beautiful and virtuous in an age that is cynical, a generation that is predisposed to nihilism over optimism, and seem to know something that generations before her didn’t know until they got into their 40’s: that the burden of everyday life for some is incredibly hard and will never be understood by the majority. And therein lies the rub for both Maika’s character and the success or failure of IT FOLLOWS as an enduring classic in the psychological-horror genre that predominates our culture today. America, at least a strong minority, understand that things are not getting better but getting worse. Depression, paranoia and affliction (of whatever variety) plague our youngest citizens and the future, while forever uncertain, seems to become finite at a much younger age than to any generation before it. Not only does the dread of growing up and becoming a zombie (i.e. an adult with adult responsibilities) present clear and present danger in this movie (as it did in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) it’s as if the characters are being preyed upon by time itself. Slow, creeping, inevitable time eating away your youth as it heads straight for you. And that’s the one, definitive universal theme at the end of the movie that took me by surprise and made IT FOLLOWS worth watching.

Because what’s worse than growing old (here considered an affliction) in this modern world? The filmmaker’s know. It’s growing old alone.

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?

 

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!

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.

Simone Simon: Original Catwoman

26 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garbo: Her Run-In with Leo the Lion

23 Oct

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

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

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

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

Mia Farrow: More Than The Sum of Her Parts

20 Oct

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For those of you who have never seen it, tis’ the season to rent Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The titular horror movie of the late 60’s holds up better than almost any horror movie of it’s time, aside from Psycho (1960) of course. And the biggest and best reason for this is the singular, star-making performance of Roman Polanski’s leading lady – the lovely doe-eyed Mia Farrow. Long before Woody Allen, Mia was Mrs. Frank Sinatra, a TV star of Peyton Place and a relative unknown to movie audiences. But that was all about to change in the blink of a devil-baby’s eye.

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I rented Rosemary’s Baby again after having not seen the movie in over ten years. Quaint by today’s extreme horror movie standards, the film has nonetheless retained its slow-boil tension up to the still terrifying reveal (I’m not going to spoil the ending but it’s pretty hard not to figure it out early on). But aside from the sheer craft of Polanski’s horror-show is the real reason to watch a movie that is over 47-years old: The beautiful Mia Farrow. This is an actress in a role that allows her to use every ounce of her formidable talent, spirit and energy. She is so compelling, so convincing and so apparently vulnerable that she draws the audience in with every fiber of her being.

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Mia’s greatest feature (in my humble opinion) are her eyes. She has these large, gumball-sized blue eyes that are made all the larger by her famous, fashion-statement on steroids Pixie cut. Ms. Farrow recent corrected the historians who attributed the iconic cut to Vidal Sassoon (Mia’s character even attributes the cut to him in the movie). However, it was Farrow herself that cut her own hair within-an-inch of its life and caught the attention of the world with its fashion-forward playfulness. Granted, Mia’s bone-structure and light features make her face glow to begin with but add the Pixie cut and her face and EYES are the main attraction in Rosemary’s Baby.

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The duality of Mia’s persona in the film is that a woman who looks so frail, so frightened can be so strong. She is all of 23 in the movie and her face literally glows (with youthfulness, and then illness as the movie progresses thanks to white make-up that Polanski had her wear to give her a sickly pallor). The young actress was famously married to Frank Sinatra at the time she took the role. He didn’t want her to do the movie and it’s a credit to Mia that she told her old man to go to hell. The subsequent divorce made the way for Mia to become a major star in her own right and no longer hidden in the shadow of the Chairman of the Board.

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Mia went on to become as big a fashion icon as she was a movie star. Like Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark before her – the hidden strength of her character shown through in her movie persona – a perfect meld that stands the test of time even as most movies of the 60’s appear so dated because of the fashion, music and style of the times. Mia’s personality is of the 60’s but transcends the time period because of the allegory inherent in Rosemary’s Baby; that of a young mother fearing for the safety of her unborn child as well as her own – surrounded by evil in a world gone mad. Maybe that’s why it resonates so well today.

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This Halloween, treat yourself and the kids with this amazing, elevated horror movie. The thrills and chills are tame next to today’s average video-game let alone horror movie. And be warned, there is some nudity (albeit of a beautiful young woman in her absolute prime). But if you want to be spellbound by one of the most amazing screen performances ever captured, mesmerized by a woman who is more than the sum of her (movie) parts before or since – watch Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.

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Even before the climax at the end, you’ll know why the devil just couldn’t keep his claws off Mia with those deep, giant blue eyes of hers.