Jul 28, 2013

Quote of the Week

I think underplaying lasts, and I always underplayed. . .I try to explain that to young actors. The important thing about a crying scene is to try not to cry. Then, when the tears finally come, the audience will cry with you.

-Myrna Loy

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Jul 24, 2013

Book Review--Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton
Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press, 2013

I've always had a crush on Buster Keaton. I don't find him sexy, but I moon over him. The nature of this infatuation has always baffled me, but after reading the new graphic novel Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton, I think I finally understand it.

That's because Bluffton imagines what it would be like to know a teenage Buster, while he was still tumbling around the US on the vaudeville stage. It made me realize that I have a sort of twelve-year-old girl crush on Keaton, innocent, but still quite serious. It all makes sense now!

I haven't read many graphic novels, so I don't know whether this one is representative of the form. Do they typically have dreamy watercolor illustrations like these? If so, I've been missing out. Bluffton floats along like a wistful dream, making you nostalgic for a life you haven't lived.

The story begins in 1908, in the peaceful town of Muskegon, Michigan. Young Henry, son of the local hardware store owner, is startled one day to find an elephant disembarking from the train. This lumbering pachyderm is followed by an equally astonishing troupe of vaudevillians who have come to enjoy a summer by the lake, as pre-air-conditioning playhouses are too sweltering for audiences in those months. With them is young Buster Keaton, who demonstrates some serious tumbling skills on the station platform.

The group grabs a trolley to their rental cottages in Bluffton, a neighborhood on the west bank of Muskegon Lake. Henry makes his way to the tiny houses and meets Buster as he comes flying out of one of them. They make plans to play baseball and a friendship begins that lasts for several summers.

Henry spends the warm days in Bluffton, learning more about these worldly visitors and observing them at play. He watches wistfully as Buster tumbles, skips stones across the water and even woos the ladies better than he can. It burns him up to be in his shadow, though he admires him too. Ironically, Buster seems to crave a simple life similar to Henry's, though he appears to be too addicted to applause to leave the stage. Performing is a way of life for him.

Bluffton has the easy pace of a lazy summer day. I love the way Phelan lets conversations trail off, indicating the silence with a few peaceful panels. It is as if he is giving his characters room to think.

Phelan's version of Keaton is expressive, but the stone face makes plenty of appearances. He gives him a subtle personality slightly different from, but in harmony with, his screen persona. I especially enjoyed a series of wordless panels where Buster quietly flirts with a local girl. Phelan captures that simultaneously bashful and bold quality that would make the grown up star so appealing.

Though Bluffton teaches familiar lessons about appreciating what you have and pursuing your passions, it does it in such a charming way that it somehow feels fresh and new. It's also touching, and I found myself a bit teary-eyed while reading the final panels. I don't know why the publisher suggested a 9-12 year range for this book, because this beautifully told and illustrated story is appropriate for any age.

Keaton really did spend his summers with his vaudeville peers in Bluffton. In his autobiography, he said that they were the happiest days of his life. What better times to explore than those with the warmest memories?

Many thanks to Raquel Stecher of Candlewick Press for providing a review copy of the book.

Jul 22, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face (1933): Dressing to Win

This post is my entry in the Barbara Stanwyck blogathon hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol. Go to her site to check out the rest of this amazing event.

The idea of a woman empowering herself by polishing her appearance is familiar in the movies. Just think of The Women (1939), where getting a manicure with "jungle red" nail color was as good as a battle cry. Or Joan Crawford advancing from her awkward small town ways and gingham dresses to wealth and slinky dresses in Possessed (1931).

In Baby Face (1933), Barbara Stanwyck takes the concept of dressing for success to a surreal place as Lily, a cynical woman determined to work her way up in the world man-by-man. Her simultaneously gorgeous and bizarre Orry-Kelly costumes, fanatically sculpted hair, serve as both armor and plumage in her battle to live a penthouse lifestyle.

And Stanwyck really works those clothes and 'dos. She deliberately shows her character using them as tools for her world domination. There's no joy in this woman's appropriation of fashion. Think of all the actresses who would be gobbled alive by the frocks in the shots to follow. Stanwyck slides into them like they are a second skin.

Lily hasn't got a concept of success in her first scenes. Working in her sleazy father's speakeasy, she can afford only the most basic clothing. In her simple blouse and skirt, which are not sexy, but also not dowdy, she unsuccessfully attempts to deflect the lust of her father's grabby customers. 

Though Lily has plenty of fight in her, she feels powerless, and this is reflected in her slouching posture, barely tucked in shirt and blank expression. Her hair is loose and untamed, much like the undisciplined and aimless Lily. She is scolded by the Nietzsche-quoting local cobbler for her lack of ambition, but she can't see life beyond her bleak circumstances:

Then Lily's father dies in a still explosion, and the cobbler tells her to use the power of sex to make her way in the world. With no other worthy prospects ahead of her, she decides to take her mentor's advice. A gingham dress and a tight blazer show off enough figure to get her started. She flirts with the doorman at a swanky bank skyscraper and sleeps with the male receptionist in personnel. So far she doesn't need much more than her sex appeal, but that bright red lipstick can't hurt:

Now that she's making money, Lily upgrades her look. Check out those buttons; they almost make her dress look like a military uniform!  But she knows her costume isn't complete. She needs a helmet before she can truly go into battle. She admires a coworker's permanent:

With her hair helmet in place, Lily is ready to move up in the world. Sorry young man (that's John Wayne before he was a cowboy), you're cute, but you don't have the cash to cut it with this gal:

Lily also starts working on that plumage, she gets lots of showy dresses and all the while that hair gets more rigid and helmety:

Once Lily works her way up to the executive class, she can quit her job and soften up her look. After all, a kept woman needs only to lounge:

Even this showy trim is soft and cozy:

The woman is still keeping sharp though. She's in the habit of fighting for survival. Despite the lovely negligees, her hairstyle is even more severe:

It actually looks like this ancient Roman helmet:

Lily could go on like this for years, but her conquests can't take it. A murder-suicide and a big old scandal cut off her cash flow. She tries to make her case to the bank's board dressed demurely in a sweetly tipped hat and lace scarf:

She still has that killer look in her eyes though. The newly instated playboy bank president isn't having it. He knows her kind. She is packed off to work in the bank's Paris office. There she sticks with the lace and tilted hat, but for the first time her clothing seems to reflect her true state of mind: 

She softens her look:

When that playboy bank president flirts with her on a business trip to Paris and takes her out to a nightclub, she hasn't got an agenda, and that shows in her gracefully-draped evening gown. Notice how her curls have relaxed a bit too? They no longer seem to be standing at attention.

Look in her eyes though, she's falling for him, but she's still hard inside. It's amazing the complexity Stanwyck brings to this simple role:

When Lily is finally legit, married to her bank president, she is truly in love, but the battle scars from her early life remain. That conflict is reflected in her final gown, which is soft and drapey, but also accented with a metallic collar. It's as if she can't shed that last bit of armor, and that's just what she needs to do to be happy:

There's so much to love about Stanwyck in this movie, but I've always been most impressed by the way she subtly and maybe not even consciously uses her costumes and grooming to build her character. It is traits like these that made her characters more substantial, not just a glittering fashion plates, but a fully-formed women.

Jul 21, 2013

Quote of the Week

Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering—because you can't take it all in at once.

-Audrey Hepburn

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Jul 16, 2013

Book Review--My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles

My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Biskind
Henry Holt and Company/Metropolitan Books, 2013

What would it be like to eat lunch at a French restaurant with Orson Welles? According to My Lunches with Orson, you'd get a lot of gossip, industry talk, discussions about culture and Shakespearean quotes galore. You would also be lucky to finish a sentence.

In the early 80s, Welles supposedly asked director Henry Jaglom to record several of their lunchtime conversations at the Ma Maison restaurant in Hollywood. He knew his friend had done the same with his father, capturing years of memories. His only requirement was that the recorder remain in Jaglom's bag, because he didn't want to look at the machine. Reading that may make your eyebrow pop up involuntarily, but I get the impression Jaglom was a true friend, he appears to have worked hard to help Welles late in his life. It also appears as though editor Peter Biskind had to convince him to publish the contents of the tapes.

Compiled from several encounters recorded from 1983 to 1985, Lunches is essentially one big conversation. According to Biskind, it was slightly rearranged and edited, but is true-to-life where it counts. I don't mean true either, because I don't think Welles was particularly interested in the truth. He liked to tell stories, and that is why a simple translation of his words is quite enough to make an engrossing read.

Lunches captures Welles near the end of his life, when he was still working like mad, writing scripts and scrambling to find funding to finish his many projects. He was frustrated by this uphill battle, but still loving life enough to enjoy a rousing conversation.

Hearing Welles speak for himself is exciting, because you can sense the richness of his intelligence. Here is a busy, fertile mind letting it flow. Biskind edited lightly enough to preserve Welles' voice. You can hear him booming out every word.

And it seems Welles had something to boom about nearly everyone. I stopped trying to keep track of how many names he mentioned after the first couple of chapters. He couldn't handle Bette Davis' face and he thought Brando had a neck like a huge sausage, but he was devoted to Joseph Cotton and impressed by John Wayne's good manners. His comments about his peers are more bitter than sweet, which I partly took to be a reflection of his feelings at the time, but I wouldn't be surprised if he always thought Laurence Olivier was stupid.

You may not like what he has to say about all these talented people, but he might make you think again about the so-called talents of an actor. Not only does Welles not hold back, but his opinions are unpredictable, and somehow fresh for changing your perspective, if not your mind. For instance, I've always admired Irving Thalberg, but Welles didn't, and he has good reasons for being critical of the "Boy Wonder."

Welles knew so much about his craft. He was an observer and a student, always curious and critical. This background, and the intelligence that helped him to learn so easily, was both a blessing and a curse. It's not easy being the smartest guy in the room. Sometimes it can be downright frustrating. If you've got an oversized ego as well, it can be excruciating.

Listening to Welles without a filter can be alarming, but also fascinating. His tall tales could get out of hand, and Jaglom picked up on this often, and called the director on his shaky grasp of the facts. While he'd admit to, as Homer Simpson once said, "writing fiction with his mouth," he never seemed apologetic about it. So no, this isn't a reference book, it's Welles blowing off steam and being very entertaining in the process. Maybe he didn't have the funds to make movies, but nothing could stop him from putting on a show.

Deepest thanks to Henry Holt and Company/Metropolitan Books for providing a review copy of the book.

Jul 14, 2013

Quote of the Week

"I’ve always wanted to sail to the South Seas, but I can’t afford it." What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of "security." And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine—and before we know it our lives are gone.

-Sterling Hayden, in his autobiography

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Jul 8, 2013

Book Review--Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations

Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations
Peter Evans and Ava Gardner
Simon & Schuster, 2013

I admit it, I wanted to read the racy stuff. I've always heard that Ava Gardner lived her life with abandon, so when I read her 1990 autobiography, I was disappointed that for once she seemed to be holding back. While Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations is far from a definitive or even comprehensive memoir, it does appear to deliver the real Ms. Ava. She shares a lot, while having the sense to not share everything, and yes, that includes the sex.

In 1988, Gardner was broke. Still partially paralyzed from a major stroke and unable to work, she decided to sell her life story, with the modest hope that she would earn enough to make the rent on her London flat near Hyde Park. She found Peter Evans, a former journalist more interested in writing his novel than documenting movie stars, and used the full force of that star power, and her seductive Ava-ness to draw him to the project.

Their collaboration was always on uneasy footing. Gardner appears to have been a loyal woman, and it must have been difficult to lay out her secrets for cash. She fretted constantly about how she would come off (she wasn't aware of how much she swore until Evans gave her some sample chapters to read) and whether she would hurt former husbands Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra with her raunchy, revealing tales of married life.

In the end, it was loyalty, or at least deference to Sinatra that killed the project. She found out the singer had sued Evans several years previously and immediately stopped work on the book. Eventually she told her story in a different, less revealing way in, Ava Gardner: My Story.

Several years after Ava's death, with the permission of her estate, Evans cobbled together a different book from what he had planned. He shares the few passages of the memoir that he completed, but the bulk of it consists of his memories and transcripts from the long, often combative conversations the two had over the course of their turbulent work relationship.

That tug-of-war between writer and star can get tiresome, they tangle over the same issues repeatedly, but it is as true a picture as you could get of Gardner in her late years. She missed the freedom her health gave her and the ability to earn her living as she was accustomed, but she also knew she had lived a remarkable life. Ava was a great storyteller and she describes her memories vividly.

I've always admired the way Gardner indulged her passions in an age where it was unseemly for women to do so. In fact, this attitude towards female sexuality has never gone away entirely, which makes her determination to fulfill her appetites all the more admirable. Stories of romping in the sack with Mickey Rooney (I'm still a bit baffled that he was such a ladies' man) and Howard Hughes are plenty steamy, but it's also just fun to think of this young woman finding out she loves sex and pursuing it with gusto.

While these episodes were amusing, Gardner's memories about her childhood stuck with me much longer. She talks about her rough, but not deprived childhood as a farmer's daughter with bittersweet tenderness. Her closeness to her father, and her struggle to survive alone with her mother after his death are made all the more remarkable when you think that she could barely keep clothes on her back in 1939 and was the elegantly-gowned wife of the biggest movie star in Hollywood by 1941.

There's very little about Gardner's acting career here, which disappointed me, though I never got the impression that she wanted to discuss her work in great detail. As dynamic as she was on the screen, Ava was never deeply devoted to her career. She had natural appeal and astonishing beauty, which she developed into good performing chops, and most of the time that seems to have simply served her as a great way to make a lot of dough.

Despite her depression at the time she collaborated with Evans, Gardner has plenty of joy to share. She may have lamented the way her life turned out, and how the stroke reduced her mobility, but she was never pathetic. Ava was too self-aware to fade away with her movie star delusions. She had her heyday, and she lived it up, but she didn't cling to it when those days were gone. It's just that she didn't know what to do after the rush of youth was gone.

Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy of the book.

Win your own copy of Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations from Classic Movies! Click here to enter. 

A Classic Giveaway--Win a Copy of Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations

Curious about the new Ava Gardner book? Well here's your big chance to check it out! Simon & Schuster has generously offered to send two lucky readers a copy of this candid look at a talented, big-hearted and delightfully foul-mouthed star of the golden age of Hollywood.

How to enter? Tell me what your favorite Ava Gardner flicks are, and why, in the comments section of this post. It's easy!

As I am frightened by all the blogging contest widgets out there, the winners will be drawn old-school-style from a large, black sunhat which would probably would have looked amaaazing on Ms. Ava.

You have until 11:59 PST Thursday, July 11 to enter. Entries are limited to the continental US. I will announce the winners in my Classic Links post on Friday, July 12.

Good luck!

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Jul 7, 2013

Quote of the Week

At age 108, flying around the stage in Peter Pan, as a result of my sister cutting the wires. Olivia has always said I was first at everything—I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die, she'll be furious, because again I'll have got there first!

-Joan Fontaine, in answer to the question, "How do you want to die?"

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