Posts Tagged ‘Edith Head’

Reviews for this legendary woman’s final film opened with something in the neighborhood of “Either you’re a Judy Garland fan, or you’re not.” If I could hear with my eyes, this type of non-comment would be like nails on a chalkboard to read. Clearly I’m rather protective of certain artists who, despite their off-camera messiness, can do no wrong. The first CD of Judy’s I purchased in my adult life was The Essential Judy Garland, a wonderful compilation that’s perfect for getting one’s feet wet. The album has provided me with material for some of my singing career’s best performances . . . the ones in my car. But it wasn’t until I watched I Could Go On Singing (originally titled The Lonely Stage) that I realized some of my Essential favorites were from the film’s soundtrack. Any helping of Miss Garland’s movies frequently comes with a side of “Oh that’s where that’s from!” I’ve traveled far beyond the rainbow and Carnegie Hall since that cherished (and yes, essential) collection, and I’ve found that, more than her films, it’s her music that remains familiar and comforting to me.

“I’m full, full to the brim with the whole goddamned world!” Almost ten years after A Star Is Born, 41-year-old Judy took to the lonely stage and played Jenny Bowman, a champion singer whose voice reigned supreme over any other, past, present, or Liza . . . well okay, we can sit and debate about Liza. After arriving in London to perform at the Palladium, Jenny looks up the man with whom she had a son years ago, and as she gets to know the boy, the loneliness of her success begins to ooze out. For me Miss Garland always brings to the screen that combination of a tough outside and a squishy inside, sometimes confessing everything through a song; other times hiding behind one. “I can’t be spread so thin, I’m just one person,” Jenny (and Judy) concedes. “I don’t want to be rolled out like a pastry so everybody can get a nice big bite of me. I’m just me. I belong to myself. I can do whatever I damn well please with myself and nobody can ask any questions.”

You’ll see in the first ten minutes that few surprises are in store as far as the plot, and I can’t say this is Miss Garland at her most attractive. Beware of the wonderful song By Myself when it’s suddenly threatened by a rather unfortunate red dress in front of a red curtain. As the story goes, this costume was never approved by Edith Head. But beyond any “style-section” reviews of the film, I think it’s one of the most revealing roles I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately Judy Garland would live only another six years after this film’s release . . . people come and go so quickly here. This tragic new level of dramatic irony fuels her performance with an obviously unscripted authenticity that may be upsetting to some and fascinating to others; I’ll remain there between the two extremes until the cows come home. Okay, enough of the analytical fiddle-faddle . . .

One afternoon I think the girl in the car next to mine assumed I was flirting when I smiled at her — sorry darling, Judy just hit a note that made me super giddy (in a duet with Barbra, thank you very much!), and you happened into my line of sight. Of all the flattering things one could say about Judy Garland’s voice, one that especially tickles me is when a song’s slowly building tempo is ripped to shreds when that lion comes roaring out of her throat. Judy ends Hello Bluebird with a growling cannonball of a “Hello!” and I imagine that part of my CD is just about to snap from repetition. Judy’s finale performance of the song I Could Go On Singing is frighteningly hypnotic; at one point she catapults the word “singing” at us (without its second “g,” mind you) as if she’s throwing her drink across the room. But before she decides to get on the stage and slay her audience, she reminds us, “you can get me there, sure, but can you make me sing? I sing for myself. I sing when I want to, whenever I want to, just for me. I sing for my own pleasure, whenever I want — do you understand that?”

Indeed we do.

“For so many years I’ve been misquoted and rather brutally treated by the press, but I’ll be damned if I like to have my audience mistreated.” — Judy Garland

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Without the help of a remarkably stylish friend, What a Way to Go! would not have found its way into that little home theatre of mine. Luckily this friend punctured a hole in one of my barriers with the phrase that typically puts me on the defense: “You’re going to love it!” Saddled with a personality that forces me to meet that phrase with an incredibly high-raised eyebrow, this time I was able to trust someone and give it a shot . . . lesson learned! Obviously the back-and-forth quoting of Shirley MacLaine’s lines from Steel Magnolias (1989) proved beneficial to my personal growth. Months later I knew that this was the same friend I had to take to see Liza Minnelli in concert. Really, who else would cry with me during Maybe This Time?

What a Way to Go! follows Louisa May Foster (Shirley MacLaine), a young woman who wants nothing more than true love and a simple life with her man. Call it what you will, Louisa has the “misfortune” of marrying men who strike it rich right before they kick the bucket, leaving her with the burden of life alone as a prospering widow. We follow her through five husbands, each with a story that revolves around fortunes won, lost, and eventually bequeathed.

After she marries each man, Louisa describes those honeymoon days with a dreamy “if our life were a movie,” paving the way for — you’ll never believe it — my favorite scenes. After snubbing a young snooty Dean Martin, the first marriage to Dick Van Dyke starts off as if it were a silent film, with a piano soundtrack, title cards, and wonderfully exaggerated facial expressions. Set in Paris, marriage number two to Paul Newman (bewitching as always) feels to Louisa like a wickedly romantic French movie. Reportedly Paul Newman learned French for this role, and he is still the only man can take “handsome” to the next level by talking with his mouth full of food. That wicked French film of Louisa’s teeters dangerously on showing us all of the beautiful of Mr. Newman . . . quel dommage! Talented and gorgeous, yes, but confound it, what a tease.

Before she moves on to Gene Kelly (with whom life was like “a gay musical number from one of those big Hollywood movie musicals”), Louisa’s third husband, played by Robert Mitchum, is already wealthy when she meets him. In one gorgeous sequence, their life together could pass for a glamorous Hollywood movie that’s “all above love and what’ll she wear next?”  In addition to a cast full of beautiful men and the lovable Shirley MacLaine, the stand-out star of What a Way to Go! is the brilliant goddess of costumes, Edith Head. The record-holding recipient of eight Academy Awards holds nothing back with this one; at times her hypnotic costumes steal the scenes from their mobile mannequins. Despite having to adjust to working with a new leading man every two weeks, Miss MacLaine was thrilled to have 72 costumes designed by Edith Head, 72 hairstyles to match the gowns, and a $3.5 million gem collection that was loaned by Harry Winston of New York. All saucy hats off to Ms. Head, “what’ll she wear next” is my favorite non-Newman scene in the entire film.

You know those people whose opinions start with a monotonous “well, that was different” and sadly proceed no further? Certainly the phrase applies here but absolutely not its lack of excitement. For 1964, What a Way to Go! is risky and risqué and wonderfully different! Packed with good clean dirty fun, gorgeous men, a costume designer of unrivaled talent, and the limitless Shirley MacLaine, odds are . . . well . . . you’re going to love it!

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Dad always had a thing for one Miss Ingrid Bergman, and since today is his birthday, I thought I’d say a few words about my recent experience with Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. If ever you had the pleasure of watching even five minutes of an Ingrid Bergman film, you know how easy it is to lose yourself in almost any of her scenes. I first met her not in the gin joints of Casablanca but aboard the Orient Express, on which she picked up her third Oscar in 1975. Another actress I’ve come to know backwards, Ingrid Bergman is placed easily in the “there’s just no one like her” column, alongside so many others of the Golden Age — there’s simply no one like Bette Davis; who’s greater than Katharine Hepburn; show me an actress who rivals Ingrid Bergman.

In Mr. Hitchcock’s Notorious, she plays Alicia, the daughter of a Nazi spy who is recruited by the United States to spy on a group of Nazis in Rio de Janeiro. At the beginning of the film, she gets properly smashed at her own party, and just to sweeten the pot for me, the ravishing Mr. Cary Grant sits watching her. He plays the government agent who recruits and escorts her through the mission, but not before she takes him on a frighteningly drunk drive through Miami. I was in love with both of them faster than they were with each other. To round out the otherwise flawless cast is Claude Rains in an evil, Oscar-nominated performance. For those whose bells are ringing with familiarity, Mr Rains is the wonderfully talented actor who was shocked to discover gambling was going on in Rick’s Casablanca bar. I’ve come across Mr. Rains in a number of films, and I’m always floored by his range; a lovable villain or a frustrating leading man, he’s always a treat to watch (and I imagine to work with as well).

I have to paraphrase one the best descriptions I ever heard about the unrivaled style of Alfred Hitchcock: he doesn’t simply show you the explosion; he tortures you for 15 minutes with the ticking of the bomb. In the case of Notorious, the bomb is a cooler of wine (champagne) bottles that will result in disaster as soon as it’s empty. Mr. Hitchcock’s mandatory cameo at the bar doesn’t help any as he slams back a glass before walking off camera. And bless that well-known party shot of Ingrid Bergman holding a small but crucial key; a key that is strongly related to the ticking bomb of a wine cooler. Dressed in (yet another) of Edith Head’s gorgeous costumes, Hitchcock’s camera moves slowly from the balcony of the second floor down to Miss Bergman’s hand that is clutching the key. Delicious!

Full of wine, politics, domineering German mothers, poisonings, and sexual remarks that always take me by welcomed surprise, Notorious is another that has been stamped as “Hitch’s favorite.” I think I’ve stopped counting the number of films that display the same stamp, but I think that this time, I’m willing to believe it.

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Well, he came to the wrong house — and he came twice.

Based on the story Washington Square by Henry James, The Heiress came about when the great Olivia de Havilland saw the play in New York and asked Mr. William Wyler to direct her in its film adaptation. Known for his unmatched ability to extract riveting performances from his actresses, Mr. Wyler agreed and eventually brought the actress her second Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Miss de Havilland plays Catherine Sloper, the plain-Jane daughter of a wealthy doctor, a part devoured by Sir Ralph Richardson. Although eager to have his daughter join in with the young people and form a life of her own, the less-than-affectionate doctor is rather mistrusting when Morris Townsend, played by a young Montgomery Clift, comes a-courting. Filled with the most elegant top hats and tails, gloves, ladies’ fans, and Edith Head’s radiant, Oscar-winning costumes, The Heiress crawled easily into my DVD collection, even before I knew I loved it.

What is it that I find so likable about Olivia de Havilland? Before discovering The Heiress, I was one of the many who knew her only as kindhearted Melanie Hamilton from Gone with the Wind (1939). You know her too; she was the mother of the baby that Butterfly McQueen knew nuthin’ about birthin’. Miss de Havilland brings that familiar sweetness to Catherine Sloper, who lacks any form of self-confidence and lives a life in which she is constantly compared with her deceased mother. Montgomery Clift comes swooping in, as gorgeous men tend to, and both Catherine and I wasted no time in falling for him . . . I think I beat poor Catherine to it. But in fact, poor she is not, and our suspicions that this beautiful man is perhaps after her inheritance begin to outshine that flawless smile and the jet-black coiffure that never seems to move. While he’s certainly a pleasure to look at, Mr. Clift never struck me as one of the best actors, and in this particular film, he reminds me of a lost little boy, trying to keep up with the adult actors surrounding him. From the bits and pieces I know of his turbulent life, the image of a lost child may not be too far off the mark.

The Heiress is one movie that really gets me thinking about second chances, not only in the film itself when Catherine considers a future with Mr. Townsend, but also in terms of my first viewing. For whatever reason, I didn’t enjoy my first trip through the Sloper household in Washington Square. I’ve noticed that when it comes to these films, I’m much more willing to give them a second try, and of course I fall for that “Oscar seal of approval” every time! I know so many of my generation who simply dismiss these treasures without having seen one in 20 years, not since the time when their parents made them. If you’re able to let go of such severe childhood trauma, I’d applaud any effort you make to revisit this classic in particular, and perhaps move on to the others that were forced upon you before you were ready. A constant quoter of movie lines, I did indeed pick up on some choice phrases during my second time through The Heiress. “Father won’t abuse you; he doesn’t know you well enough” is delivered perfectly in the frail voice of Miss de Havilland’s, and later she gives Catherine enough strength to slay us with “Yes I can be very cruel — I have been taught by masters.” Well, there it is, folks: my special tickle spot!

Constantly pushing Catherine towards marriage is her Aunt Lavinia, played by marvelously by Miriam Hopkins. It’s unavoidable — I see her name in the opening credits, and before I even see Miss Hopkins’ face, the raspy voice of Bette Davis comes booming over my loudspeaker: “Miriam Hopkins . . . she was a real bitch!” Despite her insertion of “terrible” in one form or another, Miss Davis did admit that Miriam Hopkins was a “terribly good actress” right after labeling her a bitch. Of course, there were rumors of Bette Davis sleeping with Miriam Hopkins’ husband years before, so perhaps the “unprofessional behavior” that occurred between the two was a bit deserved.

But yes, despite whatever version of the truth is the Truth, I can’t help but hear that wonderfully recognizable voice bestow bitch status upon Miriam Hopkins every time I see her. And I love Miss Hopkins in The Heiress as Catherine’s widowed aunt; she’s that wonderful supporting character who is so often blessed with the best lines. In her efforts to marry off her niece, she tells Catherine “If you will stay by me this evening, you will see that what I say is not always of the greatest importance. But dear, that doesn’t keep me from talking.” Life always comes back to what we learned by way of The Wizard of Oz, doesn’t it . . . or is that just me?

Academy Awards for The Heiress (1950): Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Black-and-White), Best Costume Design (Black-and-White), and Best Music.

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During the second season of the television show Soap (1978), Chester Tate, played by Robert Mandan, surprises everyone by waking up after undergoing an experimental brain operation. To test his memory, Chester’s doctor asks him if can remember who he is, aided with a mirror that his wife puts in front of him. “Oh my god — I’m Gunga Din,” he blurts out, examining his turban-like bandaging. When the doctor tells his patient that he is, in fact, not Gunga Din, Chester turns his chin up to the mirror and confirms, “Then I’m Gloria Swanson.” Around the age of five or six years old, this was my first exposure to the madness that is the character of Norma Desmond and the masterpiece that is Sunset Boulevard.

While some films may take a few minutes to get off the runway, the opening of Sunset Boulevard — a title that I, for some reason, refuse to abbreviate with a “Blvd.” — had no trouble hooking me in the first two minutes. It’s in these couple of minutes that we see a dead body floating facedown in the pool of an old Hollywood mansion. But it wasn’t the body that strapped me to my chair; it was the angle of the magnificent shot. I’m guessing it was tricky and clever (a lovely combo) for the 1950s — the camera appears to be filming from the bottom of the pool, causing the audience to look up at the body and the blurred people standing around the pool’s edge. With William Holden’s voiceover to guide us, he takes us back about six months to let us in on how and why that body finally got the pool it always wanted.

If you’re sure that your knowledge of this remarkable film is limited to knowing only that it exists, there’s a good chance you know more than you think. Frequently called upon throughout my life to perform parts of movies for others, I grew increasingly frustrated when people misquoted movie lines. As I’ve aged (maybe not “matured,” but aged), I’ve come to realize that the frustration had more to do with my being asked to perform — let me quote the movie lines when I’m good and ready, would ya please? That said, if this blog does nothing else for the world, I hope it lends a hand with correcting an absolutely delicious line that’s been misquoted for 60 years. If you hear the words “close-up” and “Mr. DeMille,” hopefully some form of Norma Desmond’s famous words spring to mind. Without giving away the plot to those who have not experienced Sunset Boulevard, Miss Gloria Swanson, who plays Norma, ends the film with “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” And good gravy, she wasn’t kidding!

“I am big — it’s the pictures that got small.” So tells Norma Desmond to Joe Gillis (played by Mr. William Holden) when they first meet at the beginning of the film. Miss Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of Norma, a silent film star whose career has all but faded away, is absolutely one of my all-time favorite performances. Determined to work again, Norma employs Joe to help her develop a script she has written, a script her delusional mind believes Cecil B. DeMille will jump at to direct. The first time I was old enough to understand the film (not just quote it), I remember spiraling into that universe of make-believe right along with Norma; one she creates for herself during a 30-year span of not knowing what to do with the remaining years. Escaping into a world in which Norma defines for herself what “classic film” should mean is an escape I can certainly understand! During a viewing of her own silent films, Norma rants about how the industry has changed with the addition of sound. “We didn’t need dialogue; we had faces,” she tells Joe before jumping up and swearing that she’ll be on that screen once again; that screen she was more than happy to criticize moments earlier.

Although Sunset Boulevard is told from Joe’s point of view, I never really find myself tagging along with him through the movie. I like Mr. William Holden, and I enjoy a number of his other films, but he was never really one of my favorite actors. My first exposure to him was on the episode of I Love Lucy (1955) when he gets a face full of pie moments after Lucy, Fred, and Ethel arrive at the Brown Derby (by the way, the Brown Derby restaurant chain was started by one of Gloria Swanson’s husbands — I love when my world comes full circle like that!). Rather than identify with Joe, I’m much more fascinated by the voice, mind, eyebrows, and wardrobe of Norma Desmond, who, in the capable hands of Miss Swanson, steals the entire movie. I always enjoy a little game of “what if” when it comes to film, so I find it amusing to hear that Mae West and Mary Pickford were considered for the role of Norma . . . wise choice, Paramount! The casting of Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s devoted butler is also an interesting part of the film’s history — 20 years before Sunset Boulevard, Mr. von Stroheim directed the film Queen Kelly (1929) which stared a then 30-year-old Miss Gloria Swanson. There’s that full circle again!

The wonderful problem I run into when writing about Sunset Boulevard is that there’s just too much to say. With all the cameos (Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, and Buster Keaton, to name a few), a bitter view of Hollywood (Louis B. Mayer supposedly asked Billy Wilder “How could you do this?”), and Edith Head’s costume design, I could go on for pages, just as many have! Schwab’s drug store makes a few appearances, with its wonderful old sign advertising “Breakfast, Luncheon, and Dinner” that never fails to tickle me. The always hardworking cigarette finds itself a new costume in the form of a holder that looks like a bent paperclip. Wound tightly around Miss Swanson’s finger, it’s one of the many accessories that positively made for Norma Desmond. As I venture deeper into the world of classic films, the names on the opening credits become more and more familiar. Aside from the credits themselves (my favorite is “Gowns by” so-and-so), the one name I really started to notice was Edith Head, who seemed to contribute to the costumes of every movie I watch. A woman I know little about (but will soon learn more), I always consider seeing Miss Head’s name to be a good sign, if my eye happens to catch it.

And then we come to the Academy Awards. If I were casting an Oscar ballot in 1951, I think I would have had a panic attack . . . and aside from the horrifying times I’m inside an IKEA, I don’t get panic attacks. A year that put the sensational Sunset Boulevard against the phenomenal All About Eve is a part of film history that makes my head explode. Norma Desmond and Miss Bette Davis’s aging theatre star Margo Channing are tied for second place on my list of all-time greatest performances by an actress. Just to keep you on your toes and hopefully faithful to my beloved blog, I’ll soon reveal who reigns supreme in the number-one spot. In addition to Best Actress in a Leading Role (which was awarded to Miss Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday, a wonderful performance), the films competed in a number of categories, including Best Picture. As much as I love Sunset Boulevard, I’m happy that the Academy handed the Best Picture Oscar to All About Eve. Apples, oranges . . . it’s all wonderfully delicious dried fruit!


Academy Awards for Sunset Boulevard (1951): Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White; Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture; and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.


My Oscar Time Machine: I would have called Best Actress in a Leading Role a tie between Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis for All About Eve. Miss Judy Holliday is hilarious in Born Yesterday, and any other year, I would have been thrilled to see her take home the gold. But in 1951, my apologies to the talented Miss Holliday, I’m going to need that Oscar back.

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