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Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

JUST SAYIN’

In Uncategorized on March 26, 2009 at 7:01 am

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Samantha Mathis, Colin Hanks, Jane Fonda in 33 VARIATIONS

33 VARIATIONS is Moises Kaufman’s bad medicine show of a play, in which exhortations to appreciate our mothers and daughters, as well as Beethoven, are doled out to us all for our own Goddamned good. Jane Fonda appears as a musicologist obsessed with the composer, and also dying, for all-too-convenient dramatic effect, groomed faultlessly and wearing pristine Armani-looking ensembles to root about in musty Viennese archives. Beethoven is impersonated by Zach Grenier in that same obnoxiously expectorating way he played Thomas Cromwell in the recent A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, the kind of hammy Paul Muni-esque stage hogging as a “Great Man” that the gullible are quick to call great acting. As Fonda’s career-uncertain daughter, Samantha Mathis, for years the dullest ingenue in film (it was inconceivable that delightful little Kirsten Dunst could grow up to be her in LITTLE WOMEN), proves that age hasn’t deepend her talent. As a caring nurse, Colin Hanks has an excruciating, unconvincingly written first date scene with her (these are supposed to be sophisticated urbanites?), in which he has a Jimmy Stewart/aw-shucks quality, similar to that of his father, Tom, in his younger days, but do we really need any more of that particular quality in this day and age?

Fonda, after a stage absence of 46 years, has an admirably commanding stage presence, with that incredible ramrod posture. But she is mostly called upon to, as the Brits say, park and bark out her expositional lines directly to the audience, while most of her interaction with the other actors has a particularly rote feel. Her acting career has always struck me as one very singular conundrum. In her youth, in the early 1960s, on film, she was an appealingly perky, sexy comedienne (BARBARELLA, PERIOD OF ADJUSTMENT, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, ANY WEDNESDAY, CAT BALLOU) who later gave two profoundly strong, truly classic performances: her bitter, self-destructive, ultimate loser Gloria in THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? and her infinitely shaded portrait of a call girl, Bree Daniels, in KLUTE. I’ll never forget the thrill of seeing her on the televised 1968 Academy Awards, wearing Gloria’s marcelled ’30s coiffure and looking completely transformed into a new kind of serious actress, after all the blondined sexpot years. After winning her first Oscar for KLUTE, all the juice, sensuality and fun seemed to be drained out of her, as she essayed a series of political tracts (COMING HOME, THE CHINA SYNDROME), Hollywood grande dame trash (OLD GRINGO, STANLEY AND IRIS, ROLLOVER) and just plain dreary worthiness (THE DOLLMAKER, AGNES OF GOD), which made her films events to be dreaded rather than anticipated. Her trajectory was akin to that of Ginger Rogers, such a source of pleasure throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, with her sassy, savvy, sexy comedy, who won the Academy Award for the soapy KITTY FOYLE, and thereafter took herself so seriously she became near-unrecognizable in her posing pretentiousness.

FONDA’S TRAJECTORY

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BARBARELLA

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THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?

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KLUTE

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THE CHINA SYNDROME

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THE DOLLMAKER

Incidentally, while watching Fonda in 33 VARIATIONS, one question kept plaguing me:

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IS THERE JUST ONE PLASTIC SURGEON FOR ALL THE DIVAS?

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Melanie Griffith

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Jeanne Moreau

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Dyan Cannon

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Mary Tyler Moore

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Faye Dunaway

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Meg Ryan

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Nicole Kidman

and then there’s Joan Allen in IMPRESSIONISM

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STOP THE MADNESS!

I’ll never forget Liv Ulman once telling me, “I would never have anyone else touch my face. I’m far too vain. I’m so interested in what God or nature has planned for me to look like.”

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SPAIN-FILM FESTIVAL-ULLMAN-DONOSTIA AWARD

copyright: DavidNoh2009

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WEST SIDE WONDER

In Uncategorized on March 26, 2009 at 6:07 am

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Josefina Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh in WEST SIDE STORY (photo by Joan Marcus)

It can very happily be said, and with a mountain of relief, that WEST SIDE STORY, the most eagerly awaited Broadway show of the season, was indeed worth the wait. There’d been nervous reports about 91-year-old director Arthur Laurents’ decision to use Spanish dialogue and lyrics instead of the English original, dances being cut and I, for one, was wondering if, in a cast otherwise comprised of unknowns, Matt Cavenaugh would be young, fresh and forceful enough in the role of Tony, after already seeing him in URBAN COWBOY, GREY GARDENS and A CATERED AFFAIR.

All of these cavils can mostly be shoved aside. From the very first, thumping note of the score you hear – under the magnificent baton of Patrick Vaccariello – Leonard Bernstein’s music inexorably pulls you in like a whirlpool, sweeping everything before it, and the production more than matches it for excitement and emotion. Like SOUTH PACIFIC, it’s worth the admission price alone just to hear the 28-piece orchestra, in these aurally impoverished days, thrillingly having at what has to be the most brilliantly innovative of all Broadway scores. (Putting the dynamic percussion players in the balcony box seats was a master stroke). To hear it done so superbly live, like this, is almost to hear it for the very first time and realize once more what a freakin’ genius that Lenny was. The ecstatic surge of “Tonight,” especially in its complex four-part reprise, the way “Maria” repetitively builds into a stately caravan of melodic exoticism, the plangent poignancy of “One Heart, One Hand,” the devastating dramatic blitz that is “A Boy Like That,” and, above all, the still startlingly sexy, elemental rhythmic jump of “Dance at the Gym” (“Mambo!”) followed one another fast and furiously and, if this show’s often flat dialogue may not possess the brilliant poetry of Shakespeare’s original, its music certainly attains this highest level of art.

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Dance at the Gym (Joan Marcus)

Fast and furious certainly describes Laurents’ production, which moved seamlessly, and, to use a word I usually am loath to employ in theatre reviews, cinematically. Apart from a breathlessly effective set change for the Rumble scene, with an overhead bridge rising over the stage and a chain link face isolating the action, James Youmans’ set design may be a bit too bare-bones for a major Broadway revival, like Laurents’ GYPSY, but it’s terrifically serviceable, with nary a dead spot. As in GYPSY, Laurents has brought his writer’s deep psychological understanding of character to bear on the action, with superlative results.

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Matt Cavenaugh in URBAN COWBOY

Slap my face for even doubting Cavenaugh. Somehow, this native Arkansan has morphed himself into a gesturally loose New York boy as authentic as any Dead End Kid without a hint of caricature, making Tony a genuinely nice guy, what used to be called “decent.” His slightly nasal Irish tenor, with a lovely falsetto, is a sound – which once joyously rang out through all of showbiz – heard all too rarely these days. As Ryan Silverman, who played the part in the recent Olivier Award-nominated London revival, recently observed, Tony is a hellishly difficult role, encompassing choirboy vocals and innocence added to convincing tough guy attitude, often within the same scene. Cavenaugh nailed every quality necessary to the role, and the moment during “Something’s Coming” (also hellishly difficult), in which he hit a high note, and ecstatically threw both arms up in the air in total surrender to the thrilling unknown he sings about, was, frankly, ravishing.

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(Joan Marcus)

After the relative blandness of untold numbers of Tonys and Marias, it was a joy to discover the real chemistry existing between him and Argentinian newcomer Josefina Scaglione, one of those Disney-princess perfect ingenues, possessing dewy beauty and angelic pipes, but with an additional authentic Latina flavor, plus a startling strength and fire. This was blessedly not your grandma’s Maria, but an urban girl just as dangerously bursting with hormones as any gang boy and impetuously bent on getting her way. That rarest of stage qualities, which can never be bought or merely assumed – innocence – was what she and Cavenaugh had in spades, making their every encounter and ultimate end heartbreaking.

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Karen Olivo, “America” (Joan Marcus)

Melting romance is, of course, a major element of WEST SIDE STORY, but just as important here is sizzle, the perfect segueway to bring up Karen Olivo as Anita. Chita Rivera onstage and Rita Moreno on film became legendary through this role, but, really, could either of them have been better than Olivo, who, to me, was an instant star from her dazzling first onstage moments in IN THE HEIGHTS? Her Anita is a richly varied portrait, now tsk-tsk’ingly maternal (in a smock, stitching Maria’s virginal prom dress), now deliciously sexy (instantaneously shaking down a mane of crimped hair), twitching her lethal body at her beloved, Maria’s brother Bernardo (a fine, fiery George Akram). Laurents’ decision to up the X-factor in the rape sequence was a wise one and, to it, Olivo brings a fury worthy of Anna Magnani. And when she frenetically struts her stuff in the sublimely entertaining “America” number, well, you just have to pity the fools who must follow such a showstopper. (Luckily, it’s the Jets with “Cool,” which comes damn close, but no cigar.)

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Karen Olivo, IN THE HEIGHTS

Now to other, lesser Laurents decisions. The Spanish passages – mistakenly without subtitles – are undeniably effective much of the time, adding a richer texture, especially when the Sharks sing “Tonight” in their native language. But to stage all of “I Feel Pretty” (“Siento Hermosa,” in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s translation, which doesn’t scan so good) and the essential “A Boy Like That” only weakens things, causing bewilderment more than anything else, even to one very familiar with the show. One can’t help feeling that this will produce the opposite effect of what was intended and, instead of reaching a wider, Latino audience, general accessibility will be limited, perforce,and besides, there are a helluva lot of Latinos who don’t speak Spanish that well, or even at all, these days.

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“Somewhere” (Photo by Ari Minz)

Also questionable was the use of that child to sing “Somewhere,” during the dream ballet. It wasn’t so much the use of a child that bothered me, who did sing very sweetly, just that child (Nicholas Barasch)- a perfect WASP-y little cherub, so very white and Central Casting and so evocative of gauzily bad cornball Hollywood cheese effects of the ’50s-’60s. This sequence itself is borderline-tricky enough to pull off, and if the kid had been Black or Asian (missing colors in this show’s casting), maybe I wouldn’t have objected so much, in this attempt to portray a gorgeous idealized racial tapestry.

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Cody Green and The Jets (Joan Marcus)

The other dancing was across-the-board divine, and, although late in this review, now is the time to naturally acknowledge Jerome Robbins’ heritage with this show, every bit as essential as Bernstein’s. Like the music, the choreography here is so acutely sharp and impassioned that you experience it anew. The Rumble sequence, even in its balletic terms, was the best stage fight I have ever seen, with a real, visceral terror in those manically twisting bodies and flashing blades. All of the Jets and Sharks were splendidly performed – and not at all too non-threateningly scrubbed as some critics have mentioned – with Cody Green (from TV’s STEP IT UP AND DANCE) and Curtis Holbrook (XANADU, SAVED), my current favorite working “gypsy,” stand-outs. In the audience, loving every minute,were Anna Wintour and Harvey Weinstein, paying another visit to this show he’s co-produced.

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George Akram, Cody Green (Joan Marcus)

DIVA OF THE WEEK – GLORIOUS GAYNOR

In Uncategorized on March 25, 2009 at 7:54 am

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Mitzi Gaynor, dressed by Orry-Kelly, in LES GIRLS (1957).

Director George Cukor had not really wanted the actress in LES GIRLS, Mitzi Gaynor told me, “but I was already signed with Gene Kelly, so he had to take me. He wanted to give somebody a hard time, but it couldn’t be me, because I was a Hungarian pain the ass, just like him, and I’d sock him. It couldn’t be Gene Kelly, because Gene would just roll his eyes and say, “Oh, get over yourself, Mary!” And it couldn’t be Kay Kendall, because she was going with Rex Harrison at the time – excuse me! So, poor Taina Elg got it – he’d slap her hand and say, “You silly girl!” But Taina was Nordic and very cool and she’d just say, “Oh, George….”

Movies never captured the naughty, bawdy, funny quality that the talented, stupendously energetic Mitzi Gaynor displays so lavishly in real life. Read my interview in this week’s GAY CITY NEWS with her, along with a description of Renee Fleming’s glamorous opening in the Metropolitan Opera’s RUSALKA, and an appreciation of Petula Clark in FINIAN’S RAINBOW, the film.

http://www.gaycitynews.com/site/index.cfm?newsid=20284069&BRD=2729&PAG=461&dept_id=568864&rfi=8″

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Renee Fleming, as Rusalka

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Petula Clark and Fred Astaire in FINIAN’S RAINBOW

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Mitzi, washing that man outta her hair in SOUTH PACIFIC

And catch Mitzi at Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Triangle, 1972 Broadway at 66th Street on March 31, at 5:30 where she’ll sign copies of the new 50th anniversary Blu-ray DVD release of her film SOUTH PACIFIC, as well as her own must-have DVD documentary, MITZI GAYNOR – RAZZLE DAZZLE! THE SPECIAL YEARS (City Lights). In it, she joyously pokes fun at herself, especially in one TV number, Bob Mackie-gowned to the hilt, singing “Love is Blue” against a campy, “classical” background set. “Oh, I was just having myself!” she remembers. “And then Marlene Dietrich called me up and said, “You know, dahwing, you’re much better when you don’t twy to be dwamatic!”

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with Rossano Brazzi, on location on the island of Kauai

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with John Kerr

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Mitzi today

SHAKY LEGENDS (FOR A GOOD CAUSE)

In Uncategorized on March 24, 2009 at 5:18 am

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In answer to the question of why the slated-for-Broadway production of James Kirkwood’s 1986 LEGENDS, about two aging screen divas who hate each others’ guts but are forced to appear in a play together, never made it into Gotham – it sucked big time, in every way a “steaming turd,” to paraphrase one of the actual lines from the play.

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Mary Martin, James Kirkwood and Carol Channing in 1986

Tonight, it was performed at Town Hall as a benefit for the charity Friends In Deed, by Charles Busch and Lypsinka, taking roles originated by Carol Channing and Mary Martin, who did everything they could – including pointedly poke fun at it – to put it over. (Even Kirkwood wrote a memoir of his disastrous experience, DIARY OF A MAD PLAYWRIGHT – a must in libraries of gay men over 40 – describing how Mary Martin was then unable to remember her lines and had to wear a special earpiece which fed them to her. Sometimes this device would cross frequencies with local taxi dispatches, only addling the poor dear even more.) DYNASTY gorgons Joan Collins and Linda Evans starred in a recent revival, as well, which had die-hard Manhattan queens pilgrimaging to Philly to catch the fur flying.

The packed top-dollar Town Hall audience – which was like a preview of everyone you’ll see on Fire Island in three months – roared its approval over all the campy schtick but there was no denying the sow’s ear which lay beneath the attempted silkof the stars’ efforts, not to mention their fabulously glamorous gowns, by talented Fabio Toblini. Lypsinka’s elegant purple chiffon afternoon frock was the most beautiful stage costume I’ve seen in a while, like something Orry-Kelly would have whipped up for Kay Francis in her Warners heyday. The Lyp (aka John Epperson) freely adapted the play, updating the 1986 material with references to Rachel Ray and circuit party drug-laden lines like “Axel, bring me the Tina!,” and God knows this work needed all the help it could get. When low camp is as low, unfunny, forced, misogynistic and just downright unredeemably vulgar as something like this is, it makes one almost ashamed to be gay by association. Sample line, cribbed from SUNSET BOULEVARD: “She didn’t need a face: she had feces then!” There’s a lengthy, shamelessly gratuitous passage involving a male stripper (done to a slick fare-thee-well tonight by charming Dashaun Young), and one can just shuddersomely imagine how this played in the original production, with some hunk thrusting his groin in an aged Mary Martin’s face (o, the non-hilarity!).

Busch did score one undeniably hilarious moment with his delivery of a childhood reminiscence: “My mother discovered me looking at my asshole in a mirror.” (Such is what constituted a bon mot for Kirkwood who, also, it should be mentioned, wrote the book for A CHORUS LINE in happier days.) Lypsinka got a little of her own back by strutting her familiar genius stuff in a rendition of a Cole Porter number, replete with Dolores Gray flourishes. (There should have been more of these to leaven the dead weight of Kirkwood’s writing.) NY1 journalist Roma Torre was on hand to fill in a little history about the play and mentioned the fact that Kirkwood based some of the bad diva behavior on his mother screen actress, Lila Lee. If this is true, then MOMMIE DEAREST reads like a Valentine by comparison.

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Lila Lee (1901-73), star of THE UNHOLY THREE, BLOOD AND SAND and Frank Capra’s FLIGHT

Fran Leibowitz did her trademark Sahara-dry stuff as the narrator, observing that this was the play’s official NY premiere, although done as a reading with scripts in hand like the Encores! series, making it the “premiere of an encore.” Bryan Batt had a lengthy tour-de-force impersonating as an agent hallucinating under the influence of hashish-laced brownies, which silly gimmick provided the basic impetus of Act II (o, Kirkwood!)

Whoopi Goldberg was slated to appear as a maid, named Aretha (o, Kirkwood!), but, as a game Christine Ebersole (was she pulled out of the audience – which included Raul Esparza and Director Joel Schumacher – to do this?) explained, illness prevented her from appearing. “What?!” shrieked one hysterical queen in the audience, eliciting laughter. It was later observed that Goldberg must have indeed been ill, as she was not on THE VIEW this morning, but, hey, maybe she just took a full day off, especially after realizing just how long she’d have to be onstage performing antics which could only be described by one word: “minstrel” – Kirkwood’s monumentally unseemly idea of entitled rich white-boy humor (and possibly the biggest reason for the play’s out-of-town failure) – with her singing “Camptown Races” at one point and sputing lines like “I’m wearing Eau de Doodahday.” This would be no easy, fun little cameo for charity a la her WEST SIDE STORY moment for BROADWAY BACKWARDS’ benefit a few weeks ago. At any rate, one couldn’t help but feel sorry for anyone who had shelled big bucks out expecting to see her, along with all the staunch Busch/Lypsinka devotees, and also extraordinary admiration for Lisa Estridge, the actress who sportingly stepped in to replace her, and did a fine job, considering the utter drek she had to deal with. LEGENDS director Mark Waldrop had worked with her in a 5th Avenue Theater production of INTO THE WOODS a few years ago in Seattle, and wisely brought her in to stand in for Goldberg (always intensely scheduled) for early readings and rehearsals.

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Liz McCarthy and Lisa Estridge in JUNIE B. JONES, Seattle Children’s Theater (photo by Chris Bennion)

Estridge has just relocated to NYC, so let’s join the gracious Christine Ebersole in welcoming her to the Apple. Ebersole encouraged the audience to give up the love for her, because who knows, other understudies have become overnight stars, too, “like Shirley Maclaine!” Yeah, but Maclaine was in THE PAJAMA GAME, not a one-night benefit with major drag queen competish – whatever, we wish trouper extraordinaire Estridge the very best.

REDISCOVERING RUTH

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2009 at 4:54 am

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Ruth Chatterton as FRISCO JENNY

Either be sure to watch or set your TiVos, DVRs , etc., to Turner Classic Movies in the wee hours of March 24, as two pre-Code gems are being screened: FRISCO JENNY at 12:45 AM and MIDNIGHT MARY at 3:15 AM. Yes, the network is showing them at typically annoying time slots, as they do most of their more obscure, more interesting early talkie fare, while oft-seen classics like A PLACE IN THE SUN and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY – or even FREAKY FRIDAY and God help us, ROCKY – get the prime time spots. But, even if you miss them, you can buy the DVDs as part of TCM’s boxed set, FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD, VOLUME 3, which also includes HELL IS FOR HEROES, OTHER MEN’S WOMEN, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD and THE PURCHASE PRICE.

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Loretta Young, the most excruciatingly pretty woman in cinema, photographed by George Hurrell, 1933

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MIDNIGHT MARY, Franchot Tone and Loretta Young, gowned by Adrian

All of these films were directed by William Wellman, “Wild Bill,” that hard-boiled movie star-handsome man’s man of a director (WINGS, THE PUBLIC ENEMY, THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, STORY OF G.I. JOE), whose astonishing versatility also made him a fit helmer of women’s films in the early ’30s. MIDNIGHT MARY features Loretta Young at her most excruciatingly pretty as a slum girl who gets mixed up with gangsters, winds up in the clink, commits murder and becomes a tabloid headline. Scripted by Anita Loos, it’s a fast and furiously satisfying melodrama, more Warners than MGM, which spawned it. Una Merkel and Ricardo Cortez, always a slick baddie with the ladies, appear as the heroine’s amiably sleazy girlfriend and lover, respectively. This pre-Code era was by far the most interesting period of Young’s long career – in this, BORN TO BE BAD, A MAN’S CASTLE, TAXI and ZOO IN BUDAPEST, she was entrancingly natural, warm and sexy. At one point in MIDNIGHT MARY, Costumer Adrian, doubtlessly inspired by this penultimate clotheshorse, pours her into a seductive white fringe gown and cap, which, combined with some very fetching bangs, makes her irresistibly desirable. (Adrian errs only once, here, in his sometimes over-the-top fashion, with a maternity wear-looking coat with a silly ruffled collar and sillier matching hat that looks like a beached shell on Young’s head.) In Frank Capra’s PLATINUM BLONDE (1931), she even plays the prototype of Capra’s later, hard-boiled, wisecracking, take-it-on-the-chin newspaper gals perfected by Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck, in contrast to a hilariously miscast Jean Harlow, as a snootily patrician heiress, the kind of role Young would soon find herself suffocatingtly typecast as, before going to play all manner of lacquered, sanctimonious, icky-sweet nuns, grandes dames, farmer’s daughters and bishop’s wives.

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Loretta Young in ZOO IN BUDAPEST (1933)

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Loretta: what the Hays Code hath wrought

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Ruth Chatterton, on the set, gowned by Orry-Kelly

FRISCO JENNY (1932) stars Ruth Chatterton, the one ’30s star most in need of reappraisal, playing a Barbary Coast lass abused by her father, who is orphaned by the San Francisco earthquake (staged by Warners in less spectacular fashion than MGM’s take on that disaster 1936, but damned effective, withal) but survives to become the city’s most notorious brothel owner. In an echo of Chatterton’s greatest personal success, her 1929 Oscar-nominated MADAME X, she is – as she often was – given a heavy spate of mother love to bear. This time, it’s her illegitimate son (Donald Cook) who, ignorant of his true parentage, plays a District Attorney bent on cleaning up the town, and tries his own mother for murder (which she only committed to protect his career, of course). “Going over her career is like going over carrion – a stench in the nostrils of society!” he rants in court. Five screenwriters – including Wilson Mizner, the non-gay Mizner brother, who inspired Stephen Sondheim’s last musical, ROAD SHOW – worked on this breathlessly entertaining 71 minute epic (which includes cured ham Helen Jerome Eddy as the most unconvincing Chinese “Amah” in screen history, spouting unhelpful adages like “Fortunate is the mother of a man child”) and, through it all, Chatterton is, as always fixating. She’s a most capable madam, consulting her little black book for likely girls to promote at a smoker (“Big blonde,” “Bad drunk”) and holding genteel meetings with her employees that are more like high society afternoon tea receptions (“Business was very gratifying this month.”) In prison, strikingly sans makeup and facing the gallows, she weakens in terror, but regains herself, bitterly muttering, “The gods must all be out to lunch.” A melancholy arrangement of the song “My Gal Sal” serves as her touching theme throughout. After some initial on-set tension between her and Wellman, pissed off with this “woman’s picture” assignment, they grew to respect each other’s talent and this became her personal favorite film.

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LILY TURNER

They followed this with LILY TURNER, a 65 minute sleazefest, which has Chatterton as a carny hooch dancer dealing with a passel of lousy, lousy men, beginning with a bigamist, then a pathetic alcoholic (Frank McHugh), and a psychotic strong man (Robert Barrat) and, finally, a happy ending with the ever boringly bland and reliable George Brent (Chatterton’s real life short-term husband). It was a smashing commercial success, much more so than FRISCO JENNY which was critically drubbed for its MADAME X steals and performed indifferently at the box office.

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More than anything, it was Chatterton’s remarkable cello voice which made her a star in the shaky early days of sound when Hollywood desperately imported anyone from the stage who could string a sentence together sensibly, and every actress in town yearned to speak like her. But she also possessed a uniquely photogenic face – more fleshily cherubic than fine-boned, the type you see in Boucher and Greuze paintings, with a retrousse nose, pouty lips and huge, expressive eyes – a rather indifferent, straight-up-and-down body definitely leaning toward the matronly, on which clothes, nevertheless, hung superbly, and a serious acting talent honed from years on the stage. She was on Broadway at age 14 as a dancer, but it was her voice which Producer Gilbert Miller first noticed and she became a star in DADDY LONG LEGS in 1914, at age 21.

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On Broadway in THE RAINBOW, 1912, aged 19

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Costumed as Josephine Baker, with Clifton Webb as Fu Manchu, at Countess Dorothy DiFrasso’s “Come as Who You’d Like to Be” Party

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The Death of Chatterton, by Henry Wallis

Chatterton, a descendant of the poet Thomas Chatterton, was born on Christmas Eve, 1893, in New York City, on 128th Street. She was married three times, first to blindingly handsome actor Ralph Forbes (1924 – 1932), who she left for her catnip-to-the-divas co-star in the film, THE RICH ARE ALWAYS WITH US, George Brent (1932 – 1934), and finally, actor Barry Thomson (1942 – until his death in 1960). Chatterton made her debut in films when she was 35 – and was, therefore, like Mae West, also born in 1893, a singularly mature star film presence of the time, a simple fact joyously evident in the relaxed sensuality, seasoned approach to life, rich humor and deep intelligence which she shared with West in exhibiting onscreen. There was no one bigger than her in 1929, after her sensational MADAME X. She died in 1961 of a brain hemorrhage in Norwalk, CT.

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Ralph Forbes, blindingly handsome

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George Brent – NOTE: This original vintage photo is currently for sale on Ebay – here’s the link:

http://cgi.ebay.com/GEORGE-BRENT-SEXIEST-SEMINUDE-BEEFCAKE-W-RIFLE-CANDID_W0QQitemZ350181147277QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item350181147277&_trksid=p3911.c0.m14&_trkparms=72%3A1728%7C66%3A4%7C65%3A12%7C39%3A1%7C240%3A1318%7C301%3A0%7C293%3A1%7C294%3A200

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The Husbands’ Club: Ralph Forbes and George Brent, 1935

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Ruth, in her trend-setting, drop-shouldered Orry-Kelly gown in THE RICH ARE ALWAYS WITH US, in 1932, the same year as Joan Crawford’s similar, Adrian-designed LETTY LYNTON dress

Bette Davis appeared in the diverting drawing room farce about adultery, THE RICH ARE ALWAYS WITH US and, such was the power of Chatterton’s presence and talent, that even the redoubtable Davis, not always the most generous to co-stars, especially female ones, never forgot the positive impression she made on her. She described the experience of working with her in her autobiography, THE LONELY LIFE:

“Miss Chatterton had always been one of my favorite actresses. In MADAME X and SARAH AND SON she was magnificent. Her films were saved from bathos by her magic. In order to win her, Warners had promised her not only eight thousand a week but her choice of stories. It was probably the first fabulous contract for an actress since the innovation of talking pictures. She was a star from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. Miss Chatterton chose for her first film at Warners THE RICH ARE ALWAYS WITH US [in which] I didn’t get George [Brent] and neither did Miss Chatterton, for that matter, on the screen – but she did off. They were maried shortly after the completion of the film…[Davis had to wait seven years to have her own love affair with Brent.]

“The first morning when I arrived on the set, I was clammy with nerves. Miss Chatterton swept on like Juno. I had never seen a real star-type entrance in my life. I was properly dazzled. Her arrival could have won an Academy nomination. Such authority! Such glamour! She was absolutely luminous and radiated clouds of Patou and Wrigley’s Spearmint. It was further tribute to Miss Chatterton’s singularity that her regal presence was in no way marred by the gum that she chewed incessantly offscreen. She actually made it chic, de rigeur. I felt like running to the nearest drugstore. She was superb.

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The first scene was the interior of a restaurant. Miss Chatterton and Mr. Brent sat at a table and I was to make my way through the tables and greet them in a very chic and secure way. I was actually so terrified of her I literally could not get a word out of my mouth. George was sitting there, his coffee cup chattering away. He was more nervous than I.

She kept looking at me in a superior kind of way. I finally – not meaning to – blurted out, “I’m so damned scared of you I’m speechless!”

This broke the ice and we both relaxed. She was most helpful in her scenes with me after that. I never forgot this experience and in later years when younger actors were terrfied of me, I would always try to help them get over it.”

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Paul Lukas, Chatterton, Walter Huston and Mary Astor on the set of DODSWORTH. (Note cellophane bow in Ruth’s hair; gowns by Omar Kiam)

Chatterton is only really remembered today for her best performance, in William Wyler’s brilliant DODSWORTH in 1936, a film containing scenes of intractable domestic strife that are a precursor of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, for which she deserved the Oscar. Her Fran Dodsworth is selfish to a fault – both amoral and an annoying cock-tease – often despicable, but through it all, Chatterton makes her deeply human, with a kind of searing empathy which makes us all see a little Fran in ourselves, however unwillingly. In her skilful hands, the usual dilemma of such a premise – why the hell does Sam Dodsworth stay with this bitch? – disappears, such is the actress’ fecund allure, mitigating charm and momentarily contrite, convincing fits of remorse. Costumed by the brillant Omar Kiam, her clothes help tell her story, as she progresses from Midwestern aspirational cosmopolitan to full-blown Continental fashion victim, replete with startling blondined hair adorned with a chi-chi cellophane bow. Co-star Mary Astor, going through her own travails with the scandalous publication of her diary during a vicious child custody suit, observed that Chatterton instinctively identified with her desperate, aging character, and, deeply conflicted, fought Wyler throughout the filming, but ended up being great, “in spite of herself.” In a classic example of an actress being blind to the merits of her best work, a la Faye Dunaway and MOMMIE DEAREST, Chatterton refused to see the film, and, indeed, had initially refused the part when it was offered to her, as Fran was “an unpleasant person.” She’d felt so strongly about this that she had walked out of the Broadway play production of it before the last act. Producer Samuel Goldwyn started a campaign among journalists who wrote that she was the only actress who could do justice to the role. She was persuaded to sign a contract but walked off the set on the first day’s filming and had to be persuaded and then threatened before she returned.

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Her devastating final scene of DODSWORTH

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ANYBODY’S WOMAN (1930)

But, really, because of her, sometimes solely, no Chatterton film is dismissable. MADAME X (1929), even with its creaky, mic-paralyzed direction by Lionel Barrymore (and this was before he was crippled), remains a virtuosic display of juicy Chattertonian histrionics, the template for every mummy love film to follow. ANYBODY’S WOMAN (1930), the creation of that harmoniously feminist team, director Dorothy Arzner and screenwriter Zoe Akins, is delightfully raunchy, features her as a blowsy burlesque queen (chummy with a very funny Cecile Cunningham), who drunkenly wakes up married to an aristocratic lawyer (Clive Brook as his most drolly frozen-faced) and having to deal with life among the toffs.

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In the outrageous THE CRASH (1932), she handles the Wall Street disaster in a very personal way, playing a greedy wife who ruins her husband (the inevitable Brent) with a fake stock tip, and decides she’d really rather live in Bermuda anyway, where she takes up with an Australian sheep rancher, and contemplates divorce.

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The ultimate pure Chatterton vehicle has to be Michael Curtiz’s amazing FEMALE (1933), which has her playing an automobile tycoon, who carries on like Catherine the Great with every man she comes across, treating them like so much used Kleenex and giving new meaning to the Harry Warren-Al Dubin torch song, REMEMBER MY FORGOTTEN MAN.

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Checking the seductive goods out before moving in for the kill in FEMALE

She turned down producer Sam Goldwyn’s offer to do STELLA DALLAS, refusing to play “a common woman,” and quit the movies in 1938, returning to the stage, where she acted, directed and also translated French plays. She toured the country in PYGMALION, PRIVATE LIVES, and her last Broadway appearance was a revival of IDIOT’S DELIGHT in 1951. In 1940, she appeared in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, which, although it would be a major success for Gene Tierney in its screen adaptation, died the death on Broadway after 15 performances at the Longacre Theater. She made her directorial debut, guiding her friend Kay Francis in actress Patsy Ruth Miller’s comedy WINDY HILL in 1945. She performed THE CONSTANT WIFE in London and also did television and her final acting appearance in that medium was as Gertrude to Maurice Evans’ Hamlet in a 1953 Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation.

“I am back in the theater after all the grueling years of work in Hollywood,” she said in 1939. “For pictures place a greater burden on a layer than any other medium. If anyone tells you Hollywood is not a terrific strainhe is talking through his hat. It is the hardest work I know.”

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at the 1935 Air Derby she organized

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Thompson Trophy being presented to Harold Neumann by Ruth and Fred Crawford, with Roscoe Turner at the 1935 Thompson Trophy Race in the air

A Renaissance woman, she was the first film actress to become a licensed pilot, flying her own monoplane cross-country, and also successfully authored four books, the first of which, the best-seller, HOMEWARD BORNE, was published in 1950. Inspired by Pax Lyttleton and her work with Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, it was the story of a Vermont woman who adopts a child, a concentration camp survivor, and in it, Chatterton dealt with race prejudice, as in these words, uttered by Jake, a Jewish character:

“I’m not bitter, but of course I’m old. All Jews are old. They’re born old.” Jake’s mouth twisted in a derisive smile. “That’s why they’re so God-damned young – and hopeful and trusting! And that’s why they’re not trusted. Jews are loving and loyal. They’re loyal to their people, their families and their loves. But nobody else wants their loyalty -or their love! … That’s not bitterness, that’s the truth. They’re steadfast. God help them. And I am proud of that! Because without that quality they wouldn’t exist – any more than dinosaurs exist. And that’s the way the rest of the ‘Aryan’ world thinks of them – as dinosaurs…The funny part is, there are good Jews and bad Jews, dull Jews and amusing ones, honest ones and dishonest ones; but it doesn;t matter and it never will matter. To the world, we typify the one word ‘Jew,’ and the world has built – I guess – an insurmountable wall between the Jews and the non-Jews. And God help the poor devil who tries to straddle it.”

It was made into a Playhouse 90 film with LInda Darnell, Richard Kiley and Keith Andes. After the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, Chatterton was actively involved with committees to address the food shortage there, and, in 1951, received the “Woman of Achievement” award of the Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations.

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Gowned by Omar Kiam for DODSWORTH

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JULIA + CLIVE = WE AIN’T GOT FUN

In Uncategorized on March 20, 2009 at 6:30 am

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If you’re in the mood for an instant migraine, by all means go see DUPLICITY. In this, Director/writer Tony Gilroy takes the fractured timeline storytelling technique, which, with its flashbacks within flashbacks, worked so effectively in MICHAEL CLAYTON, and applies it to the romantic comedy genre, where it produces more fatigue than true delight.

It’s a lavishly produced, international caper in the tradition of CHARADE and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (with many steals from that film’s use of split screen by ace cinematographer Haskell Wexler), but all too soon, its torturouslly complex, too-clever-for-its-own-good plotting drains all of the romance and fun out of it. Gilroy’s heavy hand is apparent in the credits sequence, which goes on for an eternity, as two rival tycoons (Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giammati) have a screaming, knock-down fight on an airport tarmack, filmed in very slow motion. It’s cute in its over-the-top depiction of corporate rage for about half a minute but then goes on and on. The extravagantly ornate, bewildering exposition makes one rather long for the simple, fiendish cleverness of the opening sequence of the Ernst Lubitsch-produced, Frank Borzage-directed jewel thief caper, DESIRE (1936), which set things up in blissfully logical, yet pithy style.

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play Claire Stenwick and Ray Koval, two corporate spies who keep meeting up over the years, alternately having hot sex and screwing each other over, business-wise. It’s telling, indeed, that in these cynical, career-obsessed modern times that such exhausting, nasty one-upmanship is, as it was in the even more mean-spirited MR. AND MRS. SMITH, the only romantic gambit Hollywood can seem to come up with. (Perhaps the current downward economic slide will restore a much-needed human element to movie relationships, and put A surcease on snarky irony in a way that even 9/11 could not do.) Watching Ray and Claire continually tease, bait and exploit one another soon becomes as anti-fun as Claudette Colbert’s “adorably” munching onions to stave off Gary Cooper’s amorous advances in that rare Lubitsch bummer, BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE (1938), from the bad old Hays Code days when protecting one’s virginity was as important as a big payday is now.

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Through all this relentless artifice, Owen manages to be more appealing than he’s ever been on screen before. His piercing baby-blues convey an unmistakably real desire for Roberts, even in the most trying of circumstances. Roberts is more problematic -At 41, one rather wishes that the yoke of “Hottest Young America’s Sweetheart Around” could be finally lifted from her shoulders.

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No longer dewy fresh, that gigantic smile a tad shopworn these days, she’s as carefully made up – lacquered really – as Lana Turner was in her less attractive middle years, and a little more flesh on her bones and face would be more attractive, not to mention photogenic. She’s called upon to be incessantly knowing and perkily confident – and the added heartlessness makes this less than an irresistiblly alluring package. Costume designer Albert Wolsky has outfitted her with quiet good taste, and I wish a little more glitz had been thrown into the mix to make this the succulent concoction it strives to be. (Hepburn’s Givenchy elegance in CHARADE, and Faye Dunaway’s Mod Theodora Van Runkle ensembles in THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR certainly added to the fun of those films, and we won’t even go into Marlene Dietrich’s unbeatably glamorous Travis Banton wardrobe in DESIRE.)

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Audrey Hepburn in Charade

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Faye Dunaway in THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR

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Roberts stops the aren’t-I-fierce posturing long enough to be quietly funny, as she seethes with jealous indignation, hearing the ecstatic confession of a duped underling who has been professionally seduced by Ray.
Those thick permisson lips thin with controlled anger as much as they posssibly can, as she listens to the gushing girl’s ravings, and that crack in the perfect superstar veneer offers that bit of realness audiences essentially need in their screen goddesses, however exalted and bankable. Her character’s surname, Stenwick, unavoidably evokes Stanwyck, a movie queen who was never above showing that earthy heart and soul audiences adored her for.

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Barbara Stanwyck, a Movie Queen, Yes, but Always Real

THE REAL MARIA ON THE IRT

In Uncategorized on March 20, 2009 at 3:44 am

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CAROL LAWRENCE, RESPLENDENT IN PLEATS

Fleeing the 90 minutes of torture called IMPRESSIONISM, the play, I ran into the hottest couple in NYC, on the subway platform, waiting for the No. 1 train: Grover Dale, ultra-dapper in hiply creative black tie, and Carol Lawrence, looking like a queen in extravagantly pleated black taffeta with an amazing portrait collar. WEST SIDE STORY’s original Maria and Jet Snowboy, still a couple of sensible train-traveling gypsies, after all these years, had just come from the opening night of the musical’s revival at the Theater, and were on their way to the party in Chelsea.

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Dapper Grover Dale

“Okay, what did you think of it?” I asked Lawrence. ‘We so enjoyed it!” she said. “It’s WEST SIDE STORY, so no matter what you do to it, it can’t be ruined. It’s still ROMEO & JULIET, still a great New York story. The cast was wonderful, and so very young.

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Chita Rivera and Carol Lawrence: “A Boy Like that”

“Arthur [Laurents, the director and original book author] really wanted to make this right up to the minute, and much of it works. He had them performing in Spanish at times for complete authenticity. This worked when they said things like “Get away!” with a lot of pantomiming and gestures to convey the meaning. But to sing “I Feel Pretty” in Spanish for all those bars, you lose a lot of the words, the little jokes. If you know the original lyrics, it’s all right, but this will be lost on new audiences.

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JEROME ROBBINS REHEARSING THE STABBING SCENE; GROVER DALE IS UNDER HIS ARM

“Arthur also removed the entire ballet, which was a shame. Grover, you helped create so much of the dance, and I missed it, the pas de deux, the scherzo. I think Arthur always hated that ballet because there were no words.”

(Dale interjected here, “I don’t think he understood it.”)

“They changed some of Jerome Robbins’ choreography, which they shouldn’t have. And, at the end, to have this child come out and sing ‘Somewhere’! Who was he – the child of Maria and Tony? Was it a dream, or a projection of the future? That totally ruined the mood and broke everything up.”

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Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert, the original Maria and Tony

Dale and Lawrence were just as interested in hearing about IMPRESSIONISM, as well as ROOMS, the new Off-Broadway musical advertised in the subway car we sat in. We were so conversationally engrossed that I’m afraid they missed their 23rd Street stop and had to get out at 18th, but a few blocks’ walk, I’m sure, are nothing to this fabulously energetic, eternally youthful duo.

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Jerome Robbins’ early morning ballet class on the movie set of WEST SIDE STORY

ORANGE YOU GLAD YOU’RE VALENTINO?

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2009 at 8:20 am

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Attention, all abject fashionistas and anyone who wants to see how the other half – make that 2% – of the world’s sinfully entitled – lives:

Do not miss VALENTINO: THE LAST EMPEROR, Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary about the perpetually tanned fashion designer, playing at Film Forum, NYC

Read my review in FILM JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL

http://www.filmjournal.com/filmjournal/content_display/reviews/specialty-releases/e3idfd88c0319b2bdc7a7f4a9eef87a28dd

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VALENTINO, WITH LONG-TIME LOVER AND BUSINESS PARTNER GIANCARLO GIAMMETTI, WHO ESTIMATES THAT, IN THEIR HALF-CENTURY TOGETHER, THEY’VE MAYBE ONLY SPENT A TOTAL OF TWO MONTHS APART

DIVAS IN VALENTINO

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Julia Roberts, winning her Oscar in 2001

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Jacqueline Kennedy

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Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding to Aristotle Onassis, with Caroline, 1968

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Valentino’s Spring 2007 show, inspired by Jackie O

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Sophia Loren

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Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding to Larry Fortensky, 1991

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Uma Thurman, Fashion Rocks 2007

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Eva Mendes at the Valentino Retrospective, 2007, also attended by

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Jennifer Hudson

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Sarah Jessica Parker

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with Gwyneth Paltrow at Cannes Film Festival, 2008

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with Elizabeth Hurley at 2007 Cannes Film Festival

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with Elle MacPherson at Seventh on Sale 2007

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with Claudia Schiffer at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute Gala 2008

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with Claudia Schiffer at the funeral of Yves St. Laurent 2008

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Anne Hathaway at Oscars, 2008 (Note dumped crook boyfriend in background)

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Maestro Assoluto di Rosso

ACTING FOR POLANSKI

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2009 at 6:46 am

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FELICITE WOUASSI

At the luncheon given at the French Embassy for Lincoln Center Film Society’s RENDEZVOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA on March 11, I met the charming, dynamic, fiercely bald actress Felicite Wouassi, star of WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MYSELF/AIDE-TOI, LE CIEL T’AIDERA. In Francois Dupeyron’s social satire, she plays an African immigrant, struggling to raise four kids in the Paris projects, who hides the body of her dead husband to continue receiving his pension, and won Best Actress at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival for her performance.

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Wouassi came to the attention of Director Dupeyron with her appearance in the Paris stage production of John Patrick Shanley’s play, DOUBT, in the role of the troubled mother, for which Viola Davis was recently Oscar-nominated. She was directed by Roman Polanski and found him “a wonderful director. He would say something very short and simple to me, which gave me the exact idea of how to play a scene. He would say “an inner smile” or “solitude!”, and I would know everything. He is not an easy man to know, but every day we would have tea in the afternoon, and he would tell the funniest jokes – Jewish jokes, Polish jokes – and make us feel so comfortable. I am such an admirer, too, of his wife, [actress] Emmanuelle Seigner, who came to the rehearsals once. She is such a strong actress, but many directors would not use her because she was Polanski’s wife. That is fortunately changing.” Indeed, Seigner brought her always fascinating, stormily complex presence to the film festival’s disarming CHANGE OF PLANS/LE CODE A CHANGE, directed by Daniele Thompson, playing an unhappy wife.

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EMMANUELLE SEIGNER

Wouassi seriously studied to be an actress and works pretty steadily, although she admits that being black can be an impediment in France: “Although directors want to use me, the producers will object because of my color. Things are changing, slowly, but many people still have that old-fashioned mind. I am so glad you tell me you did not care for the film AMELIE. You are the only American not to like this old-fashioned, so cliched “French” film, which tourists in Paris are so crazy for. Like PARIS 36, it is the old guard!”

REDISCOVERY

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2009 at 6:08 am

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WILLIAM POWELL AND KAY FRANCIS, GOWNED BY ORRY-KELLY, IN ‘JEWEL ROBBERY’

Do yourself a favor and watch or program your TiVo, VCR or whatever other technology you may possess for Turner Classic Movies’ screening of William Dieterle’s JEWEL ROBBERY, a largely unsung 1930s delight, March 19 at 11 A.M. They cite TWENTIETH CENTURY or even IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT as the first screwball comedies, but two years before those movies, in 1932 – a year to rival if not best 1939, film-wise (pre-Code, baby!) – Warner Brothers released this delicious bauble, which is as unpredictable and whimsical, apart from being far superior to and more elegant than most of the “crazy” farces which followed it.

German director William Dieterle here showed his considerable flair for soignée humor and visual niceties – the glowing photography is by Robert Kurrle – in this tale of a dapper thief (William Powell) who absconds with the gems, as well as the heart of a bored millionaire’s wife, Baroness Teri von Horhenfels (Kay Francis). It’s set in glamorous pre-WWII Vienna, and based on a play by Ladislas Fodor, one of the numerous Hungarian playwrights who provided sophisticated movie material in the ’30s. The whole delectably amoral ambiance of the film is Warners’ answer to the Lubitschean ethos of Paramount, slightly darker, a shade heavier in approach, perhaps, but no less Continental and blessedly adult. There’s a lusciously romantic musical theme, as well, provided by Bernhard Kaun (1899-1980), a largely uncredited composer who worked on dozens of films, from the original FRANKENSTEIN to TV’s THE FUGITIVE.

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Kay Francis made this movie in the same year she did Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece, TROUBLE IN PARADISE, and her work displays the same seductive shimmer. She gets to show even more comic technique here, however, and her adorable airheadedness, the entrancing gossamer deftness of her touch, must have borne some of the influence of master comedienne Ina Claire’s stage work. Her Teri, first seen luxuriating in a bubble bath, is a deliciously frivolous sybarite, describing her life, “A cocktail in the morning, a man in the afternoon, and in the evening – Veranol.” “Oh, huwy, huwy!” she impatiently cries, with her adorably problematic “r’s” to her masseur (the Amazonian Blanche Payson, who was New York’s first policewoman) as she is dressed for an exciting afternoon’s expedition to the jewelry store. “The more haste, the less speed, Madam,” she is sagely advised. When she encounters Powell, at his smoothest (which is devastatingly smooth), their eyes immediately lock in a scrumptiously knowing kinship of similarly lithe, dark mindsets and physiques. Later, when he throws her on a chaise longue, she says, “Don’t be in such a hu-wy. There are so many charming, intervening steps!” She is dressed superbly, by Orry-Kelly, one of the rare costume designers who knew how to make glamour that was also sensible and wearable, especially in an awe-inspiringly sexy strapless, drop-shouldered, backless black velvet sheath trimmed with ermine (how the hell does she keep it up?).

Helen Vinson fetchingly plays Teri‘s equally venal, sensual girlfriend, Marianne (“Oh, take that diamond away from me before I swallow it!”). When this fabulous Excelsior Diamond is displayed for them, they both ecstatically reach for it like greedy, spoiled children, a gesture that Bernardo Bertolucci repeated in the shopping sequence of THE CONFORMIST with Dominique Sanda and Stephania Sandrelli. The two have a scintillatingly suggestive boudoir conversation about the merits of jewelry vs. adultery. Teri has both gems and a suitably dapper lover, but, bored by love, prefers the former (until she encounters that irresistible thief).

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FRANCIS AND “SLINKY HELEN VINSON” (AS PAULINE KAEL DESCRIBED HER)

The centerpiece of the film is the jewelry store hold-up, with Powell keeping Francis and her entourage hostage. The terror, not to mention the longeurs of being held captive are more than allayed when a marijuana joint is suddenly produced. (You read that right.) “It’s just a gentle, harmless smoke,” purrs Powell. “He’ll sleep like a baby and awake with a marvelous appetite!” Even the Viennese police force get to partake, reducing them to helpless fits of giggles.

This being a gloriously Pre-Hays Code production, sinners blissfully get off scot-free, and the film ends entrancingly, with Teri finalizing plans to rendezvous with the Robber on the Riviera, as Francis, in her penultimately sensual and glamorous screen moment, advances towards the camera and kittenishly puts a “don’t tell” finger to her lips for an already happily enslaved and conspiratorial audience.

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1932 was a banner year for Kay Francis, who not only sparkled comically in JEWEL ROBBERY and TROUBLE IN PARADISE, but appeared in one of the screen’s great romantic melodramas, ONE WAY PASSAGE, as well

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William Dieterle (1893-1972) was, like Michael Curtiz, a versatile, directorial go-to guy at Warner Brothers. He’d been a lead actor with the great Max Rheinhardt in Germany, which informed his strong, Expressionistic visual sense, and, although not widely remembered today, is responsible for some of Hollywood’s most unforgettable films: THE LAST FLIGHT (1931), a fascinating John Monk Saunders-penned study of post-WWI aviators bearing a distinct likeness to Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES; LAWYER MAN (1932), with William Powell, as a suave lady-killing advocate; GRAND SLAM (1933), a distinctly one-of-a-kind film about, of all things, bridge; MADAME DUBARRY (1934), a sophisticated biography featuring a gorgeous, if undoubtedly Mexican Dolores Del Rio as the famed courtesan; the mesmerizing, lavishly imaginative A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1935), co-directed with his maestro, Rheinhardt; Charles Laughton’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939); Stephen VIncent Benet’s THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941); two memorably romantic, Lee Garmes-photographed Jennifer Jones vehicles, PORTRAIT OF JENNY (1948) and the superior, magnificent Ayn Rand-scripted Gothic melodrama, LOVE LETTERS. He also helmed two,famous much-honored-in-their-day ponderous Paul Muni biopics, THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR (1936), THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (1937) and JUAREZ (1939), but those should not be held against him.

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“PORTRAIT OF JENNIE”

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Helen Vinson, gowned by Omar Kiam, jewels by Trabert & Hoeffer, in VOGUES OF 1938. Note: this original, vintage photo is currently for sale on Ebay. Here’s the link:

http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=350179754506

Helen Vinson (1907-99) should be further mentioned for a pleasure-giving career in which she inevitably evinced a feline gleam, mostly as the other woman-greatest rival to similarly typecast Gail Patrick. She had divertingly bitchy parts in IN NAME ONLY, where she was re-teamed with Francis, again playing girlfriends, but far more malicious, THE WEDDING NIGHT, Gregory LaCava’s interesting PRIVATE WORLDS in which she drives Joan Bennett to madness, VOGUES OF 1938 (one of the best fashion movies, in which, photographed in Technicolor, she is every bit the clothes horse Kay Francis ever was), and THE POWER AND THE GLORY, that William K. Howard directed/Preston Sturges-penned precursor to CITIZEN KANE in its examination of a ruthless, loveless tycoon (Spencer Tracy). She plays his second wife and considerably enlivens this ponderous film, driving the man to suicide when he discovers her affair with his son. Vinson is especially enjoyable in William Keighley’s entertaining banana epic, TORRID ZONE (1940), although she bears the brunt of Ann Sheridan’s wisecracks as her rival for the affections of James Cagney. When Sheridan criticizes her for the careless disposal of a cigarette, “I understand the Chicago fire was started by something like that,” Vinson corrects her, “The Chicago fire was started by a cow,” only to get the response “History repeats itself.”

There’s a beautiful color mid-30s portrait of Vinson at her chicest, testament to her allure and celebrity, in the current exhibition of Edward Steichen fashion photography at The International Center of Photography (running through May). Unfortunately, she is not identified, and the unknowing will consider just some anonymous “rich” sitter – whither the snows…?

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Vinson was born Helen Rulfs, in Beaumont, Texas, the daughter of an oil man and eloped at age 17 with Harry Vickerman, a wealthy Philadelphia carpet manufacturer 15 years her senior. She made her Broadway debut in 1927, a walk-on in the play LOS ANGELES but, in 1929, her husband’s fortunes dissolved in the Wall Street Crash. The marriage was dissolved shortly after that, and Vinson continued on Broadway, acting opposite Sydney Greenstreet, and also Charles Laughton’s Hercule Poirot (in 1932’S THE FATAL ALIBI, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD) until she was discovered by a Warners talent scout and signed to a Hollywood contract.

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CLAIRE DODD

Like Claire Dodd, her contemporaneous, fellow Warners contractee, also type-cast in other woman roles, Vinson soon tired of such parts and described Hollywood as a less-than-glamorous “absolute sea of short men. Robinson, Muni, James Cagney and George Raft all had to stand on boxes when they acted with me.”

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CARL BRISSON, GEORGE JESSEL, NORMA TALMADGE, HELEN VINSON AND FRED PERRY AT BRISSON’S BEL AIR HOUSE PARTY IN THE NEWLYWED PERRYS HONOR, 1935

She famously married British tennis pro Fred Perry in 1935 and moved to England, where she made films, notably THE TUNNEL, about the construction of transatlantic tunnel between New York and London. They moved back to Hollywood, but her career had lost its momentum and things were not helped by Perry’s affair with Marlene Dietrich. They divorced in 1938. She married stockbroker Donald Hardenbrook in 1945, giving up her career at his request and leading a socialite’s life between New York, Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Nantucket. She took up interior design and had little interest in remembering her acting career. Hardenbrook died in 1975 and Vinson herself passed away from natural causes in 199, at the age of 92.

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THE STARS’ OFF-SCREEN LIVES WERE MOVIES, AS WELL
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AT DONALD OGDEN STEWART’S COSTUME PARTY, 1933: JOHN GILBERT AS RASPUTIN, HIS WIFE VIRGINIA BRUCE AS VILMA BANKY, KAY FRANCIS AS NITA NALDI AND HER HUSBAND, KENNETH MACKENNA AS MAURICE CHEVALIER (A LOVER OF KAY’S)