Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Living History: Audrey Totter


Audrey Totter lives at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Mulholland Drive, California, part of a retirement complex for aged and infirm members of the Hollywood community.
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According to Wikipedia:
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In 1940, then president of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, Jean Hersholt, found 48 acres (194,000 m²) of walnut and orange groves in the southwest end of the San Fernando Valley that was selling for $850 an acre. The Board purchased the property for the Motion Picture Country House... Mary Pickford and Jean Hersholt broke the first ground...
The Motion Picture Hospital was dedicated on the grounds of the Country House in 1948
. In attendance were Ronald Reagan, Shirley Temple and Robert Young, among other stars. Services were later extended to those working in the television industry as well, and the name was altered to reflect the change.
Scores of movie notables spent their last years here; so have far less famous people from behind the scenes of the industry. Those with money paid their own way, while others, who had no money, paid nothing. Fees are based solely on the "ability to pay."
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Mary Astor, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Bud Abbott, Norma Shearer, Clara Kimball Young and many others stayed there. Mae Clarke, Yvonne De Carlo, Larry Fine, Anita Garvin, Mitchell Leisen, Karen Morley, Hattie McDaniel, Edmund Lowe and Gale Sondergaard all died there.
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Just imagine it; this sad, happy, unreal, tragic, beautiful place.
What must it be like to work there? I suppose part depressing, part fascinating at first, but increasingly fascinating, decreasingly depressing as time goes on. Few things are sadder than an old movie star, but imagine the conversation, the memories, the potent atmosphere of old rivalries! Imagine Bette Davis and Joan Crawford somewhere like this! Do they all rub along as equals, or do the MGM veterans still lord it over everyone else? Do the ex-Monogram stars have to eat in a separate, smaller dining room? Imagine the social evenings, Christmas, Oscar night. I'm finding it hard imagining anything else.
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If you're interested in movies, wouldn't you rather hear Audrey Totter's take on Hollywood in the forties than discover yet again if Tom Cruise had a great time working on whatever dumper-bound epic he happens to be hawking at the time? Don't you think they'd love to talk? Maybe not all of them, but most of them. Don't you think that if it was announced that once a week there would be a film camera set up in one of the buildings, and anyone who wanted could come and reminisce, the place would be packed?
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Would Audrey Totter be one of them?
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Audrey was one of the great bad girls of forties noir, a cool blonde with a core of steel and features that could relax into beauty one minute and harden into ice the next. Her persona was etched for all time in a small part in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), easily convincing us that she was capable of taking Garfield's eyes off Lana for a moment, and she's equally good as a gold-digger in The Unsuspected (1947), untypically cast in Alias Nick Beal (1949) and ably holding her corner alongside Gable, Alexis Smith and Mary Astor in Any Number Can Play (1949).
But her most important performance, and one of the strangest and most memorable performances in Hollywood history, is the one she was required to give in The Lady In The Lake (1947), the Philip Marlowe thriller directed by and 'starring' Robert Montgomery. That's 'starring' in quotes, because the film is shot entirely from Marlowe's point of view, in subjective camera. Apart from a few bits of to-camera narration, the only time we see his - our - face is when he - we - look directly into a mirror. In this curious exercise, Audrey plays the mysterious, possibly duplicitous femme fatale.
It's not a great movie and the gimmick doesn't completely come off, but it is strange and compelling, and Totter helps more than a little. It's such an unusual performance because she directs every line at the camera, so we study her as Marlowe does: is she a cold bitch, a liar, maybe a murderess, or can we believe her? Her attempts to convince him are simultaneously attempts to convince us; she flirts with us, seduces us, turns kittenish on us one minute, tigerish the next. Any actress worth her salt would be memorable in such a role, but many could have been overwhelmed by it; Totter fascinates in the truest sense of the word.
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It's a totally new kind of acting. You can no more keep your eyes from her than she can from you; she and I spend her entire performance looking at each other. If only all movies were made like this!
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Audrey went out of date along with the noir style. As the fifties dawned and some of that post-war cynicism was sugared away, Totter found herself too indelibly associated with the old world of rainy streets, turned-up coats and pulled-down hats, seedy nightclubs and Edward Hopper automats, where hero status is strictly relative and even the women carry weapons. She belonged in the age of Elizabeth Short, not Doris Day.
So she had a family, and did the rest of her acting on tv.
Now she's at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital.
And guess what.
Last month it was announced that the hospital and residential community would be forced to close by the end of the year:
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Beginning in 2005, fund administrators reported a yearly $10 million deficit on the fund's budget. There were over 500 hospital admissions and approximately 100 long-term residents alone in 2008. The fund administrators projected their shortfall would only grow as a result of the deteriorating economy.
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Suppliers of fantasy to a world that often needed it more than it knew, yet denied its consolations themselves when the need is their own, even they, even here, are not safe from real life. Even here, ungrateful modernity is out to get them. And all for a deficit of some small fraction of Tom Cruise's per-picture salary. The Hospital's campaign blog states:
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The Motion Picture & Television Fund Long-Term Care unit is planning to evict 130+ of its oldest, weakest, most needy and disabled residents beginning in mid-March. This decision affects not only those residents in Long-Term Care, but every resident in assisted and residential care on the Wasserman Campus who may one day require the next level of care.
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Will Audrey Totter be one of them?
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