Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Could you forgive her?


As well as a million quotable (and quoted) lines and the best made-up-as-they-went-along storyline in film history, Casablanca is distinguished by two great bits of purely facial acting, rendered mesmerisingly by director of photography Arthur Edeson. One is the shot of Madeleine LeBeau, as Yvonne, in tears as she sings La Marseillaise.
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The other is by Joy Page, as Annina, the innocent newlywed who comes to Bogart ostensibly to ask if Captain Renault will keep his word (and provide her with an exit visa if she sleeps with him) but, with her eyes, begging him for help so as to avoid having to keep her end of the bargain. (Bogart arranges for her husband to win a rigged game of roulette, and thus buy his visa.)
It has to be done with the eyes: the Hays Code would never have permitted the character’s dilemma to be stated outright. Instead, in beautifully lit close-up, she asks:
“Monsieur, you are a man. If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing she wanted in the world, but she did a bad thing to make certain of it… could you forgive her?”
Had Hollywood enjoyed freedom from censorship at this time, we would have missed this tiny, poignant and exquisite moment of cinema. Artistic freedom equals artistic impoverishment yet again, another point for the Hays Office.

Joy Page, the actress who makes so much of this minor episode, died on April 18th at the age of 83.

It was only thanks to the obituaries that I learned she was in fact Jack Warner’s then-seventeen year old stepdaughter. (Her father was silent star Don Alvarado.) Fearing accusations of nepotism, Warner did not put her under contract, and she went to MGM for a featured role in the Dietrich vehicle Kismet. She worked steadily in television through the fifties, but her only other movie role of note, and her largest, was in Budd Boetticher’s The Bullfighter and the Lady.
But her two or three minutes of Casablanca will be her legacy, totemic of the degree of excellence in all details and departments, from the greatest to the smallest, that the old Hollywood studio system was able to achieve.

Joy Page (1924 - 2008)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Hazel Court: Hammer’s head girl


Hazel Court, star of The Curse of Frankenstein, has died at the age of eighty-two, just a week before the publication of her autobiography.

Court was the original Hammer Horror girl, first in a long line of screaming damsels menaced by the many unspeakable horrors of the English gothic tradition.
The popular image of a Hammer starlet is of the 1970’s variety, blonde and pneumatic, recruited as often as not from Playboy magazine. Court, by contrast, was of the first generation, product of a time when the studio favoured slightly older and more classical actresses, statuesque rather than blatantly pulchritudinous, often red-headed, and in at least three cases called Yvonne.
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Court's importance to the Hammer story is basically symbolic. In terms of longevity and number of films, Barbara Shelley (who somewhat resembled Court and according to Christopher Lee possessed “a bass baritone quite rare for a woman”) is a more central figure in the studio’s history, as well as a comparably gifted actress who transformed a number of pretty watery roles. But it was Court who got there first, as Elizabeth in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), the first true Hammer gothic.
She only appeared once more for the studio, but scored another first: becoming, in 1959’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death, the first Hammer lead actress to appear nude. (But only in export prints, in a sequence now lost. For many Hammer fans, these few seconds of film are worth a hundred London After Midnights, though a still from it does appear in Court's autobiography.) But she confirmed her genre reputation with subsequent appearances in Hammer carbon Dr Blood’s Coffin and three AIP Poe films for Roger Corman: The Premature Burial, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death, the latter as a somewhat tragic villainess rather than screaming heroine (below).
Her qualities were felt more keenly in her absence. As the sixties brought worldwide success for Hammer, a more international and overt glamour element was sought, and the refined English model typified by Court and Shelley gave way to younger and blonder variations; it coincided with the move away from Bray studios and was an equally regrettable loss to the Hammer formula. These were the days of Raquel Welch modelling mankind's first bikini and Susan Denberg, Playboy’s Miss August ’66, in Frankenstein Created Woman (the clumsy title legacy of a brief period when it was touted as a vehicle for Bardot – a good indicator of the direction in which Hammer was moving).
The best of this middle batch is clearly Veronica Carlson (left), who debuted in 1968’s Dracula Has Risen From The Grave and followed it with two Frankensteins and Tyburn’s Hammer-alike The Ghoul.
The bottom fell out of Hammer shortly after they were awarded the Queen’s Award to Industry in ’68, and as the films themselves became more desperately exploitative in the studio’s drive to regain lost favour at the box-office, so did the central casting. The archetypal Hammer queen from this (perhaps any) era is, I suppose, Ingrid Pitt, though she too only appeared in two films for the company (in one of which she is dubbed) and made her name crucially as villainess rather than heroine; off-screen she was something of a loose wire to say the least.
Standing out amongst this final catch are the winsome Madeline Smith, who specialised in young and naïve victims, and Caroline Munro (left), the only actress signed to a Hammer contract and an enduring genre presence well into the eighties.
But I must also put in a word for Valerie Leon (left), Amazonian support in Carry On films and similar, whose one and only Hammer performance was also her one and only lead, in Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb. It shouldn’t have worked out but it does: Leon is beautiful but in a very weird way, and her strange, penetrating face, which her comedy roles played down, Hammer played up. As a result, she gives a genuinely spooky performance, looks amazing, and even her fairly wooden delivery adds to the trance-like characterisation.
The rest were typified by the likes of Yutte Stensgaard (Danish crumpet in Lust For a Vampire), Victoria Vetri (Playboy centrefold turned Hammer cavewoman), or Madeleine and Mary Collinson (Playboy’s nude twins, Hammer’s Twins of Evil, left). These stars, often spotted by eagle-eyed Hammer boss Sir James Carreras (“I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it”) in newspapers and advert-hoardings, were put into films like The Vampire Lovers and Dracula AD 1972 ( “The Count is Back... with an eye for London's hotpants” ran the advertising) to take advantage of a newly liberalised British Board of Film Censors. Far from pornography, these films seem rather charmingly short-trousered today, with big-breasted Scandinavians tumbling out of their nightgowns in solemn re-enactment of the fantasies ten-year old schoolboys had when they were supposed to be doing geometry.
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Though she certainly shares with later custodians of the Hammer tiara what the Times obituary describes as a “panoramic cleavage”, Court’s was a poised and elegant screen presence, her beautiful red hair, green eyes and translucent skin seeming almost unreal in the harsh Eastmancolor palette. (She seems even more other-worldy in Dr Blood’s Coffin, which casts her not in Victorian costume but as a 1960’s nurse in a Cornish village.)
Her voice, too, is unusual; she purrs rather than talks, and it almost sounds as though there is a foreign accent being submerged beneath the cut-glass vowels, though she was in fact from Birmingham. Rewatching The Curse of Frankenstein, as I assume we have all just done, it is clear that she, more perhaps than any other Hammer female lead, has real star quality as well as being a quite exceptional beauty; you can easily imagine her sparring with Margaret Lockwood in a Gainsborough melodrama, or even in women’s pictures in Hollywood.
But Curse rescued her from a career that was fast going nowhere. She had been around since the mid-forties without ever quite making an impression; like the equally striking Barbara Steele she had been signed to a Rank contract and then more or less ignored.
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By the mid-fifties she was most often to be found on television or in those cheap second-feature thrillers that took the place of the original quota-quickies.
The most notorious of these is 1954’s Devil Girl From Mars (1954), wonderful on-the-cheap British sci-fi, with Hazel as one of a group of earthlings trapped in a pub by a black leather-clad Martian dominatrix out to recruit men as breeding stock. (The Times, reporting her death, claimed Court herself played the Devil Girl: alas, she did not, but I understand the wishful thinking.) Incidentally, the film - like Behind The Headlines (1956), one of her very last before Hammer - paired her with Adrienne Corri, another striking redhead whose time was still to come.
After Hammer, she was suddenly the hottest thing in British films. A contemporaneous issue of Picturegoer put her on the cover, and in an article titled “Our cover girl shines among the ghouls” noted: “Hers will be the most widely screened British face in America this year”, and that the film itself was “tipped to be shown in more US cinemas than any British film ever.”
Well, the predicted superstardom never came, and it is a great pity that the main fruit of her success – a part in the American tv series Dick and the Duchess – kept her away from British movies at a time when she should have been consolidating her success. As it was the series ended after a year, and she returned to a movie business that had moved on in her absence. Apart from the Cormans and Dr Blood’s, almost all of her subsequent credits were in tv.
But she remains, for me, the best as well as the first Hammer heroine, and it is sad indeed to contemplate how good she would have been as Mina in Dracula, or Isobel in The Mummy, or in any of Barbara Shelley’s roles.
Watching Curse again, I was struck as I always am by the confidence and ease of it: there is no sense whatsoever that the studio realised they were doing anything radical or far-reaching in its influence. It is, in fact, a rather underrated film, one that it is fashionable to write-off as far more important for what it began than for what it is. I’ve never found it so: certainly I feel it is equal to Dracula, its immediate follow-up and a masterpiece acknowledged by all. Hazel Court, in incredible real Victorian costumes that seem nonetheless tailor-made for her, is a huge contributor to its success, and to that crucial aura of class Hammer were able to give what was in truth a very cheap film. Like Cushing, similarly far more than Hammer could have reasonably expected, she bestows elegance on all she brushes past.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Hollywood - It’s time to pack up and go home now


Charlton Heston, who died on Saturday night at the age of 84, was many things.

He was Hollywood's last truly legendary film star. He was a veteran who, despite entering the business in the early fifties when the golden age was breathing its last, had the great good sense to seek out projects of stature almost from the start, working for De Mille, Welles, Wyler, Anthony Mann, Carol Reed and Nicholas Ray.
He became the ultimate symbol of the fifties epic hero, yet he was never mere beefcake. He wasn't even handsome, really: there was the famous broken nose to contend with, a coldness in the eyes, a slight sneer on the lips.
He was just as good at villains and weaklings as heroes, though by and large the public did not want him that way, any more than they wanted to see him in a suit. He has probably played more great historical figures in biographical dramas than any other actor, and of each he strove always to give a real performance, backed up by mountainous research and a general seriousness of purpose unusual for an actor of his type.

Was he a great actor? Well, probably not. He had to work hard, and you can see the effort. Effects that come with ease to some he sweated for, and his presence is sometimes too somber for his surroundings. Certainly comedy was way out of his grasp. But he was honest about his limitations as about everything else, and his commitment to his craft, and his seriousness, and his drive to do better, were rare and remarkable in an industry where ego usually speaks loudest.
When thinking of his career, obviously we turn first to the epics, to the De Milles, in modern dress as the circus owner in The Greatest Show On Earth and then blazing with authority (at only 31 years of age) as Moses in The Ten Commandments; we think of his solemn action heroes: Ben Hur, chariot racing, and El Cid, propped dead on his horse for one final ride into glory.
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He's great in genre, too, fine in westerns and, towards the end of his career, a brooding presence in sci-fi and horror: Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, The Awakening and the moving, important Soylent Green (which he called his only message movie).
In his more unusual appearances - as a Mexican cop in Welles's Touch of Evil, for instance - he is never exactly a revelation, but usually far more assured than we might have expected him to be. He had a talent for showing the hidden depths of men of action; look at his work in 55 Days in Peking - an action role, essentially, transformed into a character part by his gravity and attention to detail.

My two favourite Heston performances are both of great historical figures, one of them usually dismissed, the other generally conceded to be among his best. As Gordon in Khartoum he surprised even his defenders with the subtlety and assurance of his performance.
His Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy is less acclaimed, and predictable jibes about casting Heston as a man who may have been both homosexual and a dwarf are usually deemed sufficient to dismiss it. But never has an actor so ably conveyed the sheer toil of great artistic endeavour, the intensity it entails, and the sacrifices it demands in terms of human intimacy, definitely more agony than ecstasy but a display of commitment to the task in hand of which Michelangelo himself might have approved.
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There's a passage in The Actor's Life, his fascinating collected diaries, that shows clearly just how much work and thought he was prepared to put into even the most undemanding projects:
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A good chunk of work today... The scene's not bad now, including an interesting acting problem. In my character as an engineer, I help (a character who is an actress) rehearse a scene. It's not easy to read lines the way a man who doesn't know how to read lines would.

Not every actor would even notice such subtleties, and when the film in question is Earthquake the list surely narrows to one. Any other actor of his status in such a role would have prided themselves on phoning it in, taking the money and running. But Heston was different for two reasons: firstly, because he was incapable of taking a large cheque and not doing his best in return for it, and secondly, because he knew he would enjoy the experience more if he tried to make something of even the slightest material. In the same film, he insisted that his character be killed at the end trying to save the wife he hates. The studio resisted but gave in, and again, his instincts were the sounder, partly because it brings a moment of genuine surprise to an otherwise predictable plot and also because without it the character would have been insufferable: he knows there's an earthquake coming, he's ignored, he's proved right, he saves Los Angeles, his nasty wife dies and his mistress is waiting for him at fade-out. In his book, Heston calls it "one of the most important changes I've ever managed to make to a script". He's right - and all on behalf of Earthquake.

Heston was also an American hero, a man who spoke increasingly uncomfortable truths without fear of intimidation, who stood up for reason and fairness and displayed an unerring talent for taking the right position - morally and logically - on every issue. He marched with Martin Luther King at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the fifties but resigned from Actors Equity when they refused to allow a white actor to play an oriental role in Miss Saigon.

Needless to say, in recent years his decency and integrity earned him the hatred of the media class. Largely because he believed in the right to bear arms he was latterly portrayed as a raving, fascist lunatic in the mainstream media.
I doubt you will ever encounter a more repulsive spectacle in all your live-long days than that of Michael Moore brandishing a photograph of a dead schoolgirl and asking Heston to apologise to her hometown for being the president of the NRA in his film Bowling For Columbine. Throughout their pointless, supposedly show-stopping encounter, Heston comes across exactly as you would expect him to - with dignity, unnecessary patience, and superhuman politeness when that patience is finally spent. Because Moore has no points of any kind to make, he comes across as a fat slob bullying an old man. Perhaps forty years earlier, he wouldn't have been so brave.
As a rule, the more the media elite bend over backwards to portray an individual as either a moron or a dinosaur, the more uncomfortable they are with the things he is saying, and the less able they are to defeat him any other way. In truth, of course, Heston was the thing they cannot abide: the endlessly polite, frustratingly logical voice of decency.
In particular, they hated the fact that they couldn't ever rile him. When Spike Lee - crap-to-middling director so square he calls his films 'joints' - opined that he should be shot with a .44 caliber Bulldog, Heston's devastating response was to wish him well in future projects. In a letter to the LA Times he wrote:

In '63, when I was marching for the freedom of black Americans, I was threatened by white men. In '99, active now for the freedom of all Americans, I'm threatened by a black man.
When Lee was still in diapers, I was working with Dr. Martin Luther King to break down the racist code in the Hollywood technical unions that denied blacks any place behind the cameras, paving the way for young filmmakers like Lee.
I want no apology from him; my character speaks for itself. As for his, he's responsible for that, of course. I wish him well on his next film.

In 2003, after Heston announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer's, George Clooney, smirking under-writer of modern Hollywood's redundancy and sex idol to millions of unimaginative women, who seventy-five years ago might with luck have secured a job driving Clark Gable's car, joked, "Charlton Heston announced again today that he is suffering from Alzheimer's." Heston responded simply: "I don't know the man, never met him, never even spoken to him, but I feel sorry for George Clooney: one day he may get Alzheimer's disease." This painfully simple observation - which seemingly had not occurred to Clooney at the time - so shamed him that he wrote Heston a letter of apology.
His autobiography In The Arena, one of the half-dozen best volumes of memoirs by a Hollywood star, ends with a rousing account of how he managed to shame Warner Brothers into withdrawing Cop Killer (an album by rapper Tracy Marrow who, perhaps because he has a girl's name, records under the codename 'Ice-T'). This he achieved simply by walking into a Warners board meeting (which, as a major stock-holder, he was entitled to do) and calmly reading the lyrics, along with those of another track concerning the forced sodomy of two twelve year-old girls, to the assembled suits. Then he walked out and told the press. Job done.

Heston was born - just - in a world that was big enough for him, and he helped fight its last battles: for civil rights, and against Hitler. Then he became cinema's last hero. Latterly, with no causes left other than the right to apathy, he was a relic, a chunk of granite in a world of moral and intellectual and spiritual blancmanges. Mere mortals could never bring him down, so it was somehow poignant as well as tragic that it took a disease as cowardly as Alzheimer's to do what no man could even have attempted.
Yet even in the face of oblivion his attitude was characteristically stoic and inspiring. He released a public statement which read, in part:

I wanted to prepare a few words for you now, because when the time comes, I may not be able to. I've lived my whole life on the stage and screen before you. I've found purpose and meaning in your response. For an actor there's no greater loss than the loss of his audience. I can part the Red Sea, but I can't part with you, which is why I won't exclude you from this stage in my life.
For now, I'm not changing anything. I'll insist on work when I can; the doctors will insist on rest when I must. If you see a little less spring in my step, if your name fails to leap to my lips, you'll know why. And if I tell you a funny story for the second time, please laugh anyway. I'm neither giving up nor giving in... but it's a fight I must someday call a draw. I must reconcile courage and surrender in equal measure. Please feel no sympathy for me. I don't. I just may be a little less accessible to you, despite my wishes. I also want you to know that I'm grateful beyond measure. My life has been blessed with good fortune...
William Shakespeare, at the end of his career, wrote his farewell through the words of Prospero, in The Tempest. It ends like this:

Be cheerful, sir. Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Thank you, and God bless you, everyone. Sincerely, Charlton Heston.

If ever a man was too good for his age, it was Charlton Heston.