Oct 30, 2013

Book Review--Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait
Kendra Bean
Running Press, 2013

Scarlett O'Hara is the kind of role that could both make and destroy a career. The risk is multiplied when an actress is as perfectly cast as Vivien Leigh was. If becoming an Oscar winner being an English Southern rose was her only claim to fame, she would still have been legendary. What's remarkable is that she went on to do so much more, achieving numerous triumphs on the stage and screen, acquiring another Academy Award for A Streetcar Called Desire (1951) and even winning a Tony in 1963 at age fifty for performing in the musical Tovarich.

Living an ordinary existence was never an option for Ms. Leigh. She knew that early on, as a young wife and mother who left behind placid domesticity to fully embrace her passion for the stage. Without her jaw dropping beauty, she might not have gotten far. Her thin voice was not made for reaching theater audiences and clearly she needed to work hard to develop her craft. And yet, she had an intensity and charisma that was meant to be admired.

Leigh used these raw materials, and a determination that always bordered on obsession, to become one of the most celebrated and adored actresses of both stage and screen. She overcame her limitations to make a significant mark in theater, but she was built for film. No worries about a voice carrying there, and audiences could catch every delicious emotion rippling across that delicately beautiful, but somehow not really delicate face.

At her side for over two decades was Laurence Olivier, a man for whom she had either great reverence or a pathological obsession, depending on who you asked. She put him on a pedestal, allowing him to mold her in the hopes she could absorb some of his greatness, though she knew she was not born with his genius. Before and over the course of their marriage they were lovers and partners, focused on their work both together and apart, but always in great need of each other.

Kendra Bean draws on documents from the newly-available Laurence Olivier Archives to fill out the contours of these elements in Leigh's life. There aren't any shocking revelations, but more than in any previous biographies of the star you get a sense of the intense drive that propelled her towards both greatness and despair.

With Intimate Portrait, I got a better feel for how Leigh's manic depression affected her life and loved ones. Though I knew her disease had been a factor in breaking up her marriage to Olivier, I'd never fully understood how devastating it had been for him to watch his beloved wife suffer. His love for her never died; he simply had to save himself from being destroyed by her madness.

Through sheer determination, Leigh held back her illness so that she could continue her work, following each episode of mania with apologies to her friends. She could be in the midst of an episode, shaking from the intensity of it off camera, pull herself together for a scene, and then return to the sidelines, once again in agony.

Leigh's good manners, style and professionalism endeared her to friends, co-workers and an adoring public. The enduring halo of Scarlett cemented that goodwill, and had she not succumbed to tuberculosis at age 53, it is likely that she would have kept her prestige. She was not one to fade away into obscurity.

Bean is a compassionate biographer, and she has constructed a loving, balanced portrait of the actress. She acknowledges that Leigh was not always an angel, sharing Streetcar co-star Karl Malden's story of how the actress snubbed his wife at a social event and tales of her infidelities with other actors. Explored here in detail are the complexities of a woman who essentially abandoned her baby daughter, while she eventually became a maternal figure to Olivier's son Tarquin, from whose mother she stole his father. There are two dark Viviens at play here: one who sins because of a manic episode and another who rebels against convention to pursue her passions.

Though Intimate Portrait could stand on its text alone, the photos that Bean has found, many of them previously unpublished, are striking and sometimes astonishingly revealing. From public appearances, to cozy private picnics, these images reveal a glamorous and yet down-to-earth woman with an intoxicating verve for life. The overall book design is beautiful as well, sensual almost, with rare attention to details including color, endplate design and organization. It is an elegant presentation worthy of its subject.

Many thanks to Running Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

Images from Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia

Oct 28, 2013

The Edith Head Google Doodle: Who Wore the Dress? And in What Film?

I've been sitting here admiring the lovely new Google doodle, which was created to celebrate the October 28 birthday of eight-time Oscar winning costume designer Edith Head. I couldn't believe that I did not immediately determine the film and star connected with each dress. This woman is one of my favorite designers!

So far I've figured out the following:

-I'm pretty sure that gorgeous white gown on the far left was worn by Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951). Apparently this is design that launched a million imitations, many of them worn to the prom.

-That sassy yellow dress is definitely from Sex and the Single Girl (1964), worn by Natalie Wood. Page down to see a photo and sketch here.

-The elegant blue dress was worn by Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955). You can see a sketch and photo here.

-That snappy green suit is the first one I recognized. Who could forget it after what happens when Tippi Hedren wears it in The Birds (1963)?

Those red dresses have me stumped. Anyone know about them?

Update: I've seen from a few sources that the red and gold gown on the end was worn by Jo van Fleet in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). I don't remember that movie well enough to be sure. Here's a sketch on Pinterest.

Update II: Is the red gown with the fur trim supposed to be from White Christmas (1954)? The shade looks different than in this photo.

Oct 27, 2013

Quote of the Week

Success is like reaching an important birthday and finding you're exactly the same.

-Audrey Hepburn

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Oct 23, 2013

Book Review--Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and The Scandal That Changed Hollywood

Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and The Scandal That Changed Hollywood
Greg Merritt
Chicago Review Press, 2013

My introduction to Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was via a magazine feature about Hollywood scandals. Through that I learned that the silent screen comic had been tried three times for the murder of what was called a young starlet at a wild party in San Francisco. The detail that he may have crushed the poor woman to death while attempting to rape her haunted me. That he was also supposedly molested her with a bottle horrified me. I was twelve years old and just beginning to learn about classic movies. I decided that I had no desire to learn about this man, even though he hadn't been convicted for these crimes. The whole situation disgusted me, true or not. I imagine this has happened to many fans of old movies over the years.

The 1921 Labor Day weekend party Arbuckle threw with his friends in three rooms at the top of the Hotel St. Francis was the setting of a scandal so outrageous that it retains its notoriety today. The hefty star was one of the most wealthy and beloved stars in Hollywood when he set off for San Francisco in his custom Pierce-Arrow, well-stocked with liquor. Days later, he was in a jail cell, under suspicion for causing the death of actress, model and designer Virginia Rappe. After the trials for the crime, his acquittal came swiftly; the jury had deliberated for only a few minutes. Still, his reputation never recovered, not even after death.

Arbuckle had been tried by his public as well, and the fact that the married (though estranged) actor had been drinking illegal alcohol and partying with young chorus girls in a hotel was scandal enough for shocked women's groups and religious organizations. Newspapers competing with increasingly sensational headlines reinforced his public humiliation. Years later, a series of influential books further destroyed his reputation, partly with total fabrications, such as the bottle story, which could be easily disproved by referencing any of the court cases.

Greg Merritt does his best to weed through all the details of this scandal to find the truth, or as much of it as can be found. There's no way to know exactly what happened between Arbuckle and Rappe, because they spent several minutes alone behind a closed hotel room door the day of that fateful party. Merritt builds as much of the story as he can with the available facts, adding his own educated guesses about various details.

In addition to playing detective, Merritt does much to restore the reputations of Arbuckle and Rappe. He resurrects the comic who was one of the first big movie stars, a man who was adored throughout the world. Even when he found success, Fatty never put on airs, he was kind and generous to his fans and co-workers. When an inmate at a prison asked him to come entertain, he obliged. He was also known to have no professional jealousy and an amiable manner on the set. Rappe, who has tended to be written off as a slut, or even a whore, riddled with venereal disease is revealed as an ambitious actress struggling to find success, but living with a certain amount of dignity.
Arbuckle in 1919

Merritt explores the comic's troubled, lonely childhood, where he lost his mother at age twelve and suffered abuse at the hands of his father. Arbuckle never had a chance to play as a child, and so he made up for it as an adult, sometimes going too far, but usually meaning well. He was troubled, but Merritt makes it clear it is not likely he was a rapist, or prone to violence.

Usually I find courtroom procedurals tiresome and I assumed it would be a struggle to get through the extensive sections about the trials, but Merritt fills them with engrossing details that reveal the complexity of the case and the effect it had on society and Hollywood. He is always cautious and often skeptical of the rumors and testimonials associated with the case, and for good reason. Sometimes he injects a little humor, a welcome relief in the midst of such a sad story and appropriately handled.

I felt Merritt successfully cut through all the misinformation surrounding the scandal, and given how many years it has been accumulating, that was a huge task. Stories of Arbuckle's life pre-scandal are alternated with chapters about the event and aftermath, an approach I found appropriately jarring as it mirrored the dramatic, sudden effect Rappe's death had on both the comic and his industry. Weaving the sensational with the less explosive events of his biography gives the book a balance that it could not have had if told chronologically.

Merritt has structured the book so that it revisits the scene of Rappe's death after the facts, and theories, are revealed. He bookends the story with a review of the party events. The first time, he tells them straightforward, simply setting up the basics of the mystery. He ends by telling the story again, but from different perspectives: that of the state, the defense and followed by his own analysis. He comes to a conclusion about what really happened that day, and it is the most plausible explanation I've heard yet.

Room 1219 works as true crime, Hollywood history and biography. It covers tricky territory, but the research is strong. I've never been more curious to view the films of Roscoe Arbuckle, because I finally feel like I've been able to separate the real man from the rumors.

Many thanks to Chicago Review Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 20, 2013

Quote of the Week

When you become a legend, people become experts on your life.

-Joan Fontaine

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Oct 16, 2013

Book Review--Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad

Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad
Ronald L. Davis
University Press of Mississippi, 2006

Zachary Scott came from money. He was pampered, even a little spoiled, though he was always pleasant and grateful for his parent's generosity. His biography answers the question: what happens to a movie star in decline when survival is not an issue? The result is predictable; money doesn't solve everything, but it certainly helps. Still, Scott's story is fascinating, partly because of the man we get to know, but also because of the parts of his life that remain a mystery.

Though superstars get the bulk of attention when it comes to actor biographies, they only represent a small part of the Hollywood experience. We can't be blamed for wanting to admire the glitter of those who became movie legends, but the people who supported them, and those who grabbed the odd leading role and managed to keep working, are more numerous and they represent a more commonly shared view of acting life.

Zachary Scott was that kind of star. He's well known to people who love classic film, his performance as Joan Crawford's straying husband in Mildred Pierce (1946) ensured that, but he never ascended to the widespread, enduring fame enjoyed by actors like James Cagney and Cary Grant.

He was one of the gems of early Hollywood, unhappily typecast as a villain, but always memorable. An actor with some demons who nevertheless managed to maintain a reputation as an elegant, generous and talented performer. In films like Flamingo Road (1949), Ruthless (1948) and The Southerner (1945) (where he played beautifully against type as a struggling farmer), he demonstrated consistent ability and intense magnetism.

Though Scott often struggled to stay active in his profession, he never hit the lower depths, most likely due to his solid background. He came from a loving, wealthy Texas family. His attentive parents raised their son to be a gentlemen and they maintained close ties throughout his life. Though many who knew him said he had the manner of a rather precious prince, he was never a snob. This was a guy who could make fast friends with a garbage man. He saw the value in everyone he met.

While Scott's upbringing helped him to navigate life with grace and confidence, his parent's money both saved him and held him back. He rose to fame during World War II as a replacement leading man for established stars who had gone overseas. When these men returned home, and a new crop of actors bloomed post-war, Hollywood lost interest in Scott. Increasing absences and troubles with alcohol, primarily brought on by his frustration at the monotony of his roles, didn't help his reputation.

Scott turned to the stage, which offered better variety, but the money was not as good as with film. Still, he insisted on maintaining his lavish lifestyle of fancy clothes, expensive dinner parties and collecting art. Where many actors would have slid into poverty, Scott simply relied on his parents, often asking for loans or outright gifts of money. They seem to have always been willing to help their son and he never loafed, always finding work on television, in regional theater or traveling with summer tours.

Scott may have suffered another significant torment. Rumors of his being homosexual followed him throughout his adult life. His insistence on wearing a single gold hoop earring must have done much to inspire whispers, though he always had an explanation for this eccentricity. If he did have these yearnings, he kept them hidden well.

Davis speculates that Scott may have had one or more homosexual experiences as a young man, when he went to London to study acting. There he met several influential men who warmed to him quickly upon his arrival on the Continent. His relationship with producer Edward Laurillard was especially close, and his classmates were alarmed when he was chauffeured to class in the older man's Rolls Royce. It's probable that Scott had opportunities to try same-sex relations and possible that he gave sex with men a try. Many of his loved ones noticed a mysterious change in his manner when he returned from his trip, but as it was his first time abroad alone, any number of things could have affected him. As intriguing as it all is, Davis wisely keeps the speculation light.

Scott married twice, both times to actresses. Unusually for a star in his position, he was scrupulously faithful to both. His first wife Elaine left him, after fourteen years of turbulent, but essentially happy marriage, when she fell for John Steinbeck. Second wife Ruth Ford was more devoted and the two remained happily together for the rest of Scott's life. Though often absent from their lives, he seemed to be loving in his way to his daughter Waverly from his first marriage and his adoptive daughter Shelley from his second.

It's the tension between Scott's essentially stable family life and the inherently turbulent profession of acting that keeps Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad lively. So many things came to the actor easily, and when he did work hard, he thrived, and yet he was tormented. Perhaps because he felt he had to live up to the legacy created by his wealthy father, maybe there was something else. Whatever the case, this talented, charming man made his mark in a brutal profession and without sacrificing his dignity. He was unique in his field and in the way he lived. Davis has explored this complex man with compassion and solid storytelling.

Many thanks to the University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 13, 2013

Oct 9, 2013

Book Review--Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star

Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star
Stephen Michael Shearer
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2013

Gloria Swanson's fame was explosive in a way that is not even possible in today's fragmented media environment. It's difficult to comprehend the full measure of her impact in a world before television, internet and the myriad other distractions of modern life. She was one of only a few people in her time who attracted worldwide adoration.

Fans followed her every move. She was swarmed with crowds wherever she went, in the States and abroad. They copied her hairstyles, clothing and mannerisms, eager to capture a piece of her lavish life. She wasn't the first movie star, but she was the first to embody the persona of a glamorous screen goddess, and she played that role with so much gusto that she lost a fortune and spent years attempting to dig herself out of debt.

It's difficult to get a sense of how much adulation Swanson inspired when her biographer is constantly making digs at her, as in The Ultimate Star. Occasionally you'll catch an appreciation of her style, enduring talent, versatility and generosity. Unfortunately, those moments are offset with several negative, personal comments about the star.

There are certain things you can expect in the life story of an actor: they are often narcissists; sometimes they put on airs; usually marriage and parenthood suffer for the glory of their craft. These less attractive elements belong in any decent biography; they are necessary for a full understanding of the subject. Shearer gets to the bottom of many of Swanson's dubious claims about her life, several from her autobiography. Often, she was trying to save face. Other times she was more ruthless, such as when she claimed a dress made for her by a designer was her own creation. She could be horrid and self-absorbed.

Still, even unsavory characters can be treated with a certain amount of respect, despite their flaws and especially when they are as complicated as Swanson. Things like Shearer's comments about how the star "prattled on" in an interview or even about how a certain costume hue was "never a flattering color choice" run throughout the narrative and give the story an excessively bitter feel.

Tone aside, the book could have used a more vigorous edit. Awkward phrasing often interrupts the flow of the text. Odd wording like how a critic "painfully wrote" a bad review had me scratching my head.

The Ultimate Star is full of detail and I found lots of enjoyable tidbits, though I wondered if anyone would want to know that Swanson received a "1956 desk calendar from Charles and Lillian Brackett" for a Christmas gift one year. I guess there's got to be someone out there.

This is an passable review of Swanson's life, I'm sure there will be people who adore it, but I think she deserves better.

Thank you to Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 6, 2013

Quote of the Week

Such was his aura, that everyone cleared a path, as he silently exited my dressing room, looking neither right nor left.

-Frank Langella, about Yul Brynner

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