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Lauren Bacall: To Have and Have Not

17 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carole Lombard: Way Before Her Time

10 Aug

This is my favorite photograph of the amazingly luminous Carole Lombard. Carole died in a plane crash in January 1942 after appearing in a USO show to sell War bond during World War II. She was a brilliant and beautiful actress with a bawdy sense of humor and loved men almost as much as they loved her.

Only 33 when she died, Carole lived the high-life in Hollywood, was known for hosting some of Hollywood’s legendary parties and attracted some of the most handsome leading men both on and off the screen. Clark Gable would ultimately take the role of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind because he needed enough money to divorce his previous wife and marry Carole. They were married in 1939 and by all accounts the love of one another’s lives. That’s saying something even for golden age Hollywood where marriages lasted almost as long as the Santa Ana winds.

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I encourage any film lover to check out Carole Lombard’s screwball comedies of the 30’s. She was the highest paid actress (next to Garbo) and made five-times what the U.S. President made in a year. Carole was accompanied by her mother and publicist on the flight that would ultimately take all their lives, including 19 other people (mostly servicemen). She wanted so much to get back to Gable, her husband that she chose to fly rather than take the train. Her colleagues, both afraid of flying, begged her not to go. So Carole flipped a coin – heads by train, tails by plane – and the rest was sad Hollywood history.

I’ll always love Carole for her bawdy sense of humor, the way the light caught her eyes and that lovely blonde hair. She was as smart as they get, and I like to think that, if she lived, she would have been one of the greatest actresses ever to grace the screen. Even though her life was cut short at the top of her game, Carole lives on with a gay spirit and infectious laugh in the movies that capture her essence for all-time. And death can’t even tarnish such a pure, luminous light as Carole Lombard.

Myrna Loy: The Thin Man’s Better Half

2 Aug

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What can I say about the legendary Myrna, one of the most beautiful, smart, sophisticated and versatile actresses ever to grace the silver screen. Myrna Loy was truly timeless. Her appeal is not restricted to fads or fashion, trends or a time-specific ideal. Myrna would have been famous no matter what era in history she was born into. We’re just lucky she was born late enough to be immortalized in light and sound for all the generations that came after her to share in the fun.  The thoroughly modern Myrna was born August 2, 1905.

Myrna is best known for The Thin Man series of movies with William Powell and that little dog. The interesting thing about watching Myrna play straight man to Powell is similar to watching a rift in the time/space continuum occur right before your eyes. Myrna is modern, from her acting (understated) to her make-up (again, understated) to the way she effortlessly walks through the film like she is taking a stroll through the park. By contrast, Powell is a contrivance of his time; a drunkard vaudevillian yellowing around the edges as if you discovered a dusty, faded photo of a long lost relative in your attic along with moth balls, an old bag of your grandfathers golf-clubs and wooden tennis racket. Now, before you think I’m hating on Powell (I really enjoy the guy) watch the first Thin Man and you’ll immediately get what a mean. The poor sod just can’t keep up with Myrna no matter how hard he tries. And trying hard is the worst thing you can do opposite a natural.

A lot of the leading ladies in this series rise effortlessly above the material they were cast in simply because everything but the leading lady (and possibly hair and make-up) was run by men. Very few women, if any, were behind the camera and so everything was filtered through a forced-perspective of male wish fulfillment. What was in control by a woman, the actress herself, was her acting ability and her wits in front and behind the camera. Myrna was a force to be reckoned with even before she became famous. She knew her appeal, knew how to look good, sound good and, most importantly, not let the schmuck playing opposite her ever get the upper-hand. But there was something even more special about Myrna Loy. As if she was in on the joke. That all-knowing look only a woman can give the world, letting us know they know we’re full of it – but it’s all right.

I had a friend down in Los Angeles who adored Myrna. He judged all other woman by her impossible standard. Inevitably, the schmuck would always end up leaving wonderful women simply because they were human, fallible and, god forbid – burped, belched or farted in his presence. Any imperfection and he was done with them. The irony is, Myrna was as human as any of these women. She definitely had a great sense of humor (which this guy did not, but thought he did) and would have given my friend the time of day in real life.

Real life. I wonder sometimes if I was ever lucky enough to meet my leading ladies in the flesh, in living color, if they would resemble the image in my mind’s eye after watching their shimmering image on the silver screen. Of course, I’d be in shock initially. But I mean after, when the shock wore off and we got to know each other human to human. That’s where I think Myrna Loy would rise to the very top of the list for me. Funny, direct, accessible – these are the qualities most appealing and desirable in a woman for me. And these are the very same qualities that make Myrna Loy timeless. As bright a star today as 60 years ago when she strolled across a sound stage and became immortalized in light. May that light never fade on my beloved Myrna Loy.

Eva Marie Saint: Oscar Royalty

20 Jul

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It’s amazing that actresses today who strike Oscar gold with their first foray into film are immediately subject to the Oscar curse. This should not to be confused with the Oscar Love Curse – in which actresses from Vivian Leigh to Julia Roberts to Sandra Bullock win the little gold man of their cinematic dreams, only to lose their significant others in real life immediately after. No, I mean the Oscar curse where an actress hits paydirt her first time out and is relegated to terrible roles forever after. One classic beauty who defied this particular tinseltown superstition is the legendary Eva Marie Saint.

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Eva Marie was a little known though already incredibly talented actress on Broadway and television when Elia Kazan cast her as Edie Doyle,  Marlon Brando’s love interest in On The Waterfront (1954). The film was a tremendous hit – sending Brando into the stratosphere and taking Saint with him. The breakout role for the beautiful blonde resulted in an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Eva Marie was crowned the latest Hollywood princess of cinema – with every director circling her for their film. But Eva Marie was smart and, in a town that eats their own on a regular basis, chose her directors and her roles wisely.

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On the Waterfront showed the diminutive blonde as a naive though curious young woman who had little experience with men – let alone the domineering and larger than life presence of Brando. Maybe that’s what was so refreshing about her – she was able to keep her head amidst the carnage of Kazan’s black & white world. Saint’s performance was the perfect contrast to the rest of the film’s cynical world view. She stood out as pure and unaffected. It was a performance that deserved the Oscar, so the pressure was on for Eva Marie to find roles that would not typecast her – even at a time when so many actresses were interchangeable.

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To understand the role is to understand how acting as an art was changing in Hollywood. Eva Marie was part of a new breed of realism. She was able to convey a vulnerability without being weak at a time when women were still constrained in the “50’s mentality” of what a woman’s role was. That’s why I loved her next huge hit and the one that introduced me to her. Of course, I’m talking about Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). In choosing Saint, Hitch was to transform Eva Marie from her trademark sweet, naive blonde persona into a femme fatale. Always the obsessive-compulsive auteur, Hitchcock literally took the scissors and cut Saint’s locks. It was a gamble that turned Saint into a sophisticated, world-weary spy who is able to control men in the dangerous world of espionage.

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Playing opposite the dapper and always glamorous Cary Grant, Eva Marie more than held her own in Hitchcock’s suspense classic. The performance was controlled and masterful. It was sophisticated and modern to have a woman so capable of holding her own – a realism that was rare for film of the day and set a tone that would be as influential to the spy genre as On The Waterfront had been for crime dramas. And all the while, Saint captivated audiences with that beautiful face that only let you see what she wanted you to see – until the end.

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Eva Marie’s role in North was a revelation to many who had remembered her as the diminutive blonde in Waterfront. She had matured as an actress between 1954 and ’59 and audiences knew it was no accident she had received the Oscar nearly a decade before. But to her credit, Eva Marie was more interested in spending time with her family than being in the Hollywood limelight. Her marriage to Jeffrey Hayden (1951) is one of the most enduring in Hollywood, largely because Eva Marie put her marriage and her two children first before her career. So, in a way she eluded both the Oscar curse of work and marriage falling apart, post winning her gold statuette.

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Now, at age 90, Eva Marie is still very active in Hollywood. While her roles have been sporadic over the intervening decades since North By Northwest, Saint has been nominated for Emmy’s in standout television roles. And as Oscar royalty, she’s been active in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. Eva Marie is a judge in the prestigious Nicholl Fellowships for Screenwriting – the single-biggest amateur screenwriting award that gives aspiring scribes the opportunity to break into show business with their cinematic dream projects. Many a newbie screenwriter has been blessed with meeting Eva Marie at the annual Finalist dinner and Awards in early November. What a treat it would be to meet the legend in person!

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Eva Marie Saint is one of Hollywood’s greatest success stories. She is one of the few that has TWO Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – both for her film and television work. Makes you wish more actors were as down to earth, generous and inspirational as her. And it makes you wonder if Hollywood’s biggest stars of the day will still be around – and still so inspirational – when they’re in their 90’s. Seems like the industry has changed too much for that to be possible. Then again, Eva Marie called her own shots back when it really was an old-boy’s club.

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Here’s to Eva Marie, one of the most gorgeous and talented actresses of Hollywood. Oscar royalty who never looked down on anybody, but instead used her talent and compassion to lift them up. If you haven’t seen On The Waterfront and North By Northwest then rent them as soon as you can. And for a different film experience altogether, watch Eva Marie in Raintree Country (1957), 36 Hours (1965), and the formidable A Hatful of Rain (1957) one of the first Hollywood movies to tackle drug addiction.

Jennifer O’Neill: Summer Lover

4 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert De Niro and Greta Garbo: A Match Made in Heaven

20 Jan

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Greta Garbo in Anna Christie by Robert De Niro, Sr.

Robert De Niro premiered a new documentary at Sundance film festival this weekend. The half-hour doc was produced by HBO and is about the Oscar-winning actor’s father, the late artist Robert De Niro, at Sun. What’s interesting about “Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr.,” is how it sheds light on the mutual fascination father and son had for another star: Greta Garbo. De Niro, Sr.’s fascination for the movie star was such that he would bring his young son to all her movies – and De Niro, Jr. became fascinated in his own right with her. While his father would paint portraits of Garbo, his son would study Garbo’s acting technique which inspired him to become an actor himself. Who knew?

Greta Garbo was the undisputed Queen of Golden Age Hollywood, or more accurately, Tinseltown from her 1927 silent film debut up to her abrupt departure from the screen in 1941. So much has been written about Garbo that there is very little new light to be shed on the luminous screen creation that was Garbo. The one thing I can add to all the biographies and hagiographies of the iconic actress, however, is why she remains more relevant today than when she was the highest paid woman in the U.S. ($5,000 a week in 1932) and the most recognizable face on the planet. Garbo remains relevant to today’s celebrity-obsessed culture simply because she started it all. She was the first star whose private life became fodder for the tabloids, literally her every move became a matter of record in every newspaper throughout the world.

The list of firsts involving the screen queen goes on and on:

The first time in history a newspaper hired a plane to fly over a celebrity’s house to capture a “candid” photo of the star sun-bathing nude.

The first time a King visited a movie set to pay homage to a movie queen (King Gustav of Sweden to MGM in Hollywood). Of course, Garbo refused to meet him.

The first time a celebrity (since Cleopatra) went by one name.

Garbo. Historians of film still talk about “the Rapture” seeing her face in close-up on screen had on theater audiences, both male and female, throughout the world. Never before had a human visage been captured in light so perfectly and so large – big enough to see every perfect pore of skin (covered in silver make-up made for her by Max Factor himself – so she would literally shine), every eyelash (all natural); ever internal thought conveyed through voluminous eyes.

Garbo, aka “The Face” was said to be the most beautiful woman who ever lived. But more than that, Garbo brought about modern screen acting, making her counterparts Norma Shearer and Marion Davies by comparison, appear to be pantomiming. Screen legend Bette Davis was so obsessed with Garbo’s acting that she stole onto a movie set to see Garbo in action. She came away nonplussed. Later, she saw the footage of that days shooting and was blown away by what the camera saw. Davis said Garbo’s affect on the artificial eye was nothing less than “witchcraft.”

All Garbo’s directors and fellow actors agreed. Seeing Garbo act with the naked eye seemed like nothing special. But then, when the film emulsion was processed and negative became positive – Garbo the screen goddess in all her glory appeared as if by alchemy. Nothing less than magic. Her ability to convey emotion without uttering a word, even moving, seemed supernatural. So much so that the occultists of the day considered Garbo to be more than mortal. She became known in the press as, “The Immortal One.”
Of course, Greta Garbo was not immortal. After her final film, “Two Faced Woman” flopped in 1941, she bid the world goodbye and moved into an apartment in Manhattan, New York and aged quietly, reclusively, until her death in 1990. Yet up until virtually her dying day, Garbo was stalked relentlessly by paparazzi while other glamorous movie stars of her era like Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth and poor Norma Shearer were forgotten once their beauty and fame faded from view.

Why? The easy answer is that Garbo’s steadfast rejection of the modern day cult-of-personality she helped to foment fueled our desire to capture her image evermore in the spotlight. As if, simply by virtue of the fact a famous person wanted to be left alone – we couldn’t allow it in our new age of media obsessed, fame monsters and attention whores. But I have a sneaking feeling there was more to it than that. My sense is that Garbo was more than met the eye, even when she became a shriveled, wrinkled, white-haired old lady. I think Bette Davis was onto something when she gazed at Garbo with those big, Betty Davis blue eyes of hers. I think Garbo was a witch. The most beautiful witch who ever lived, and whose cinematic spell will continue to be cast on generation upon generation of movie lovers – for as long as there is light.

Kirsten Dunst: Girl with a Devilish Smile

29 Dec

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Kirsten is one of my favorite contemporary actresses. She has been in the business a long time and easily one of the best actresses working today. Consistently excellent, the one thing the Dunster her trouble with is connecting with commercially successful roles. Don’t get me wrong, she has had her fair share of hits – though not in the same stratosphere as Jennifer Lawrence or Amy Adams, for instance.

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What sets Kirsten apart from both Lawrence and Adams is that she broke out when she was still a child, in her amazing performance as an immortal, child-vampire in “Interview with a Vampire”. Her ability to convey a woman in a child’s body was eerily on the mark, decades before “Let the Right One In”. Even her kiss with Brad Pitt was convincing, which she said at the time was totally gross.

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Dunst would make many more memorable, star-turning roles in “The Virgin Suicides”, “Bring it On” and “Little Women” but none truly catapulted her back into the spotlight until “Spider Man” opposite Tobey Maguire. Dunst as love interest Mary Jane to Spidey was truly inspired casting and secured Dunst as a bankable star in her own right.

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With Big Box office comes opportunity in Hollywood and Dunst used her new clout to make several smaller, important films. Most recently she portrayed a depressed bride at the end of the world in Lars Von Triers’ “Melancholia” a role that she fully-committed to and was met with critical raves for the young actress.  She was even able to survive Von Trier’s near career-suicide at the Cannes Film Festival when the film debuted. Having grown up in the business, the savvy Dunst is able to navigate the media as easily as she can a choice role.

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One of the more curious movies Kirsten has been in recently is 2012’s “Upside Down” a lavish, visually intoxicating love story set between two worlds who share the same atmosphere – yet different gravity, literally. Dunst was luminous in the film, as she always is, but there was something missing. It was a perfect example of a director and co-star not being able to keep up with a leading lady whose very on-screen presence is more stunning than any special effect. And while the film was lackluster, Kirsten makes the film worth watching just to bliss out on her face for 2+ hours.

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I can’t wait to see the German born American actress in her next star turn, whatever that may be. And my wish for her in 2014 is to connect with the right role that will make audiences realize just how amazing she is. No offense to Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams but Kirsten was here first. And she’s going to be around a long, long time after many of her contemporaries have come and gone.

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Kirsten in a more serious mood.

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A more playful mood by the pool (very patriotic, too).

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And one of my favorite glamor shots of the classic, timeless beauty!

 

Ella Raines: Phantom Leading Lady

17 Nov

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I’ve seen a lot of movies by now but I’m still young enough to have cinematic epiphanies like discovering the beautiful and enigmatic Ella Raines for the first time. This was surprising not least of which because I’m a film noir nut but that once I laid eyes on her amazing face I wondered aloud where she’d been my whole film life. The revelation came in a small, underappreciated though thoroughly engaging noir called “IMPACT” (1949).

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Ella is cast as a gorgeous garage owner in a fairly preposterous scenario involving a love triangle with a man left for dead by his conniving wife. He strays into a small town garage where Ella is doing her best to destroy an auto she is trying to fix. She needs a car mechanic and looking for love at the same time. The first time I saw her stunning face on screen I did a double take. I was discovering her in that garage right along with wronged leading man, Brian Donlevy. Only I forgot completely about his two-timing, back-stabbing, murderous wife and immediately fell head over heals for the insanely gorgeous Ella.

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Ella Raines was born in 1920 and came to Hollywood prominence fairly early in her career. She starred opposite John Wayne in “Tall In The Saddle” (1944) and hit with several other movies like “Brute Force” (1947) where she starred opposite Burt Lancaster. But her signature-noir-roles were in the curious, all-female noir “Cry Havoc” (1943) and, of course, “Phantom Lady” (1944).

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Phantom Lady had a similarly preposterous plot of a conniving woman who has sent a man to death row over a heated row with another woman who had the audacity to wear the same hat at her nightclub show. There’s a murder naturally and it is up to Ella to find out the identity of the Phantom Lady in order to exonerate  her boss – whom she has fallen head over heals for. However, the plot doesn’t matter when you have a woman this gorgeous in a noir so stylistic and well-shot that the atmospherics alone create the mood and forward momentum.

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Ella is simply, darkly gorgeous in Phantom Lady. She inhabits the shadows and imbues the cigarette smoke-filled environment with a white-hot drive to save the man she loves. She’s formidable in her gallant effort to stop a would-be femme fatale and that’s enough for this moody, brooding and over the top noir. At a tight 88 minutes of running time, Phantom Lady does what it sets out to do: introduce the world to one of the greatest beauties unleashed on the silver screen in glorious black & white.

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Ella continued to act both in film and television after her amazing start to her career. But the roles were mostly in B-movies, turkeys that no matter how she shined and was shot – were still turkeys. She even had her own television show where she starred as a registered nurse (back when that career alone could be the basis of an entire show). And like so many actresses before her – she worked well into her late 50’s and 60’s with her last screen credit in 1984 – four years before her death by throat cancer in 1988.

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Ella was a classic beauty who had brains and talent more than luck with movie roles. I’m glad that Impact was my first introduction to her because it was a good noir with an interesting role for Ella. Plus, she was an absolute knockout with her hair pulled back and engine grease on her face in tailored white coveralls. If there were only women like her in garages in small towns throughout the country today. America would be a much better, much sexier place.

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My favorite glamor shot of Ella because she’s almost smiling.

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There. She finally did it. She smiled!

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And now a bit of cheesecake for the boys…

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Before going back to smoldering sensuality.

Lizabeth Scott: Ultimate Femme Fatale

11 Nov

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Lizabeth Scott is simply one of the most unusual and glamorous stars of Hollywood. Her timing was impeccable because her smoky sensuality and husky voice came at the exact moment film noir was establishing itself as the dominant genre in post World War II America. She started out on Broadway as a sub for Tallulah Bankhead in a play called “The Skin of Our Teeth” though Lizabeth never got to shine because Tallulah never got sick.

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Instead, Lizabeth (she dropped the “e” to be different) was noticed by film scouts who brought her to the attention of producer Hal Wallis.  Wallis was the genius who brought us “Casablanca” and he saw talent in the young (Lizabeth was 20) would-be screen siren. Lizabeth tested at Warner Bros. and it was a disaster but Wallis still liked her look enough to bring her with him to Paramount Pictures when he left Warner Bros. – he and Jack Warner having had a bitter falling out over Warner “stealing” the Best Picture Oscar from Wallis for Casablanca. Wallis would remember this the rest of his career and wasn’t going to let anyone take his new starlet out from under him.

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Wallis dubbed Lizabeth “The Threat” and made her over into a femme fatale and perfect foil for some of the screen’s greatest leading men. Arguably the greatest was Humphrey Bogart, whose wife Lauren Bacall and Lizabeth had similar character traits in common. Lizabeth and Bogie got to work together in the noir classic “Dead Reckoning” and Lizabeth held her own against the formidable screen presence of Bogart. She was able to be charming at the same time rip smart-aleck lines right after another. Her portrayal of world-weary, potentially dangerous women on the outside of polite society looking-in was an instant favorite of movie goers. She suspected everyone of having an angle – as did a new generation of world-war-weary Americans. She was in good company from the start.

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But Lizabeth was quickly typecast as the femme fatale of noir. She made 20 films in her time in Tinseltown and more than 80-percent of them were classic noir scenarios. Except for her very last performance in 1957, when she starred opposite a young Elvis Presley in the curious “Loving You”. Curious because the King actually had screen chemistry with the Queen of Noir in a technicolor musical and one of his first of 27 Presley movies. Off-screen, the two became great friends and stayed in touch even after Lizabeth retired from films. In fact, Lizabeth was a singer herself and would release the eponymous “Lizabeth” which, true to its name, was full of torch-songs as well as light-hearted love ballads.

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The thing I love most about Lizabeth was truly how different she was to any other actress that came before, or after, her time in the spotlight. She projected a character that had seen the dark side of life, one that had survived in spite of the lousy hand she’d been dealt. The kind of alley cat that had been kicked around and never wanted to trust anyone or get hurt, again. Yet in spite of it all, she would fall in love again and again. Sometimes the guy was on the level, sometimes not and Lizabeth’s characters would take their lumps and move on. This classic noir archetype existed before Lizabeth but she brought it into vogue – the vamp with a heart – and made it her own signature style. It’s as distinctive as her voice and her angular, often smiling in spite of the pain visage. Many actresses would imitate this style later but few would come close to Lisabeth’s signature persona.

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It astounds me that Lizabeth hasn’t received more acclaim for her work in noir. The great actress is still with us (she was born in 1922 so you do the math) and I think that the new generation of neo-noir directors (i.e. Rian Johnson, Brian Helgeland, etc.) would want to cast this living legend even if just for a cameo – in their films. Or, maybe they’ve tried and Lizabeth has rebuffed their advances like her character did in so many of those inspiring, femme fatale roles she created. She’s truly like Garbo in this way – she does want to be left alone. Still, I would give my eye teeth to sit down and talk with such a classy, under-appreciated original like Lizabeth. It would be a privilege and an honor to sit across the table from the actress who starred opposite so many golden age movie stars. And probably more than a little intimidating, too.

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A classic publicity shot of the up-n-coming star during her heyday in the California sun.

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One of the few shots of Lizabeth smiling…right before she devours you!

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That’s more like it. The Queen of the Femme Fatales in classic evening gear. The cigarette is smoldering and so is her glare.

Rachel McAdams: Timeless Beauty

9 Nov

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There are so many Rachels in the world but none more beautiful than Rachel McAdams. The actress hit the scene in “Mean Girls” (2004) which is ironic because ever since she’s been portraying nice girls on film. Especially nice girls where the boy travels in time like this weekend’s romantic comedy “About Time.” Before that it was “Midnight in Paris” (okay, she wasn’t so nice in that one, either) and “The Time-Traveler’s Wife.” Is is a coincidence or does Rachel possess a timeless beauty that makes her the queen of the time-traveling genre?

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What’s almost as interesting about Rachel is the roles she hasn’t gotten since she hit the silver screen. Since 2004, she has been up for some of the biggest roles in tinseltown, only to be beaten out at the last second by a bevy of other beauties: Rachel was in consideration for the role of Rachel Dawes in “The Dark Knight” (2008), but Maggie Gyllenhall was cast instead. She was in consideration for the role of Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby” (2013), but then Carey Mulligan was cast instead. Rachel auditioned for the role of Sophie for the musical “Mamma Mia” (2008) but lost out to actress Amanda Seyfried. She was considered for the role of Vesper Lynd in “Casino Royale”(2006), before the role was given to Eva Green. Rachel almost portrayed Pepper Potts in the first “Iron Man” but turned down the role! And we all know what goopy-actress ended up with that mega-hit-slash-movie franchise.

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But for all the roles she’s missed out on it really doesn’t matter because Rachel is having fun…and that’s what counts. She’s not a megastar but nor does she want to be. She’s a great actress and I have no doubt that she will ultimately break out of the romantic comedy/drama genre one of these days. Until then, she is the go-to actress for stories full of love and loss and love again. She enjoys making people feel good and has a light touch on screen. I just hope she lets the time-travel thing drop after this latest one for awhile. I wouldn’t want her to get typecast – even though she is a beauty for the ages.

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A rare photo of Rachel with a pout where her fantastic smile usually goes.

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A great photo of her that shows off her amazing eyes!