Monday, November 23, 2009

Someone remind me again: What exactly ARE the rules that Nicole Kidman won't play by?


Believe it or not, the battery that starts Norma Shearer's motor car also curls Norma's hair. This curling iron saves the trouble and expense of sending a hairdresser on location trips...
And Anita Page has found the perfect solution to damage to cars caused by sandy shoes after a trip to the beach: For twenty-five cents she bought this shoe brush and attached it to the running-board. Just the old door-mat brought up to date...
These are just two of a selection of Motoring Beauty Hints brought to you by Photoplay Magazine back in the thirties.
You'll have to find out for yourself how Jean Arthur has solved the problem of how to wear a floppy hat in an open roadster.
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When you immerse yourself in old movie fan magazines, as I have been doing lately, you enter just this lost world; one far more lost, far deader in comparison with its modern equivalents, than that of the movies themselves. It is one where the stars - playing parts every bit as much as when on screen - attempt to ingratiate themselves with their public by pulling off the daunting juggling act of being unapproachable icons of perfection and swell ordinary folks at one and the same time. It's a relationship of mutual need: the magazines need the stars and the stars need the magazines, and both are concerned with grasping and retaining the fickle attentions of the voracious American movie fan.
The magazines are sheer fantasies for the most part, and give no fairer a picture of what life in Hollywood was really like than Hollywood Babylon does at the other extreme. But the contrast between magazine publicity pieces then and now is striking indeed.
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They've always sold illusions, untouched by reality or even the pretence of it. Both present the hallowed object of desire in the light best tailored to their public's tastes and aspirations. But there is a humility to the old star pieces, even when celebrating their conspicuous wealth and consumption, quite alien to the preening aristocracy of the modern Hollywood firmament. Long gone are the days when an interview with an actress would consist of a heartfelt thank you to all her fans for keeping her in a life of luxury followed by a recipe for meatloaf.
A bit of swanning about is one thing, I guess. But I might be more warmly disposed to modern film stars if they didn't insist on taking themselves so damned seriously.
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The cover star of GQ magazine this month is Nicole Kidman, an Australian actress who - it would be folly to deny - scrubs up rather nicely, but who seems to suffering from the delusion that she is some kind of artist making a deep and meaningful contribution to the cultural history of her species. That she is able to do all this while still wearing underwear in artistically-arranged disarray is all the more tribute to her, but still, I'm confused.
"Give me risk, danger, darkness..." she says on the cover, above a headline reading, Nicole Kidman Still Won't Play By The Rules.
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What does this mean? I know what Motherhood - What It Means To Helen Twelvetrees means. I know what Why Girls Fall In Love With Robert Taylor means, what Career Comes First With Loretta and Joan Grabs The Bennett Spotlight and How I Keep My Figure by Betty Grable all mean... but I'm buggered if I know what these rules are that Nicole still won't play by.
Perhaps the article itself will enlighten me. Nope.
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Nicole Kidman cuts through the leaden darkness like an apparition. It is immediately apparent why so many directors have tried to capture her powerful physical presence on film... her sex appeal radiates almost exothermically. Even at 42 her skin is as white as ewe's milk, her eyes wickedly blue, her features raised, taut and coltish... Perhaps, I wonder, Nicole Kidman only feeds off sunlight to survive? Or admiration? Or men's wanton souls?
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Okay, whatever. It has always been the interviewer's lot to absurdly romanticise their subjects, and this big ninny eulogising Nicole's wickedly taut and exothermically coltish ewe's milk is not really so far from the acres of adoring purple once lavished on Errol Flynn, or Gable, or Garbo.
But there is an unmistakable arrogance here, a lack of reciprocation that was never tolerated in the golden age. (The old magazines are full of warnings, or 'advice', to cocky stars: What's the matter with Lombard? asks Gladys Hall in Modern Screen; Watch Your Step, Ann Dvorak! warns Delight Evans in Screen Book.) Nicole couldn't care less about the box-office success of her films, she opines, as if she has some pre-ordained right to keep making them regardless of whether anybody wants to go see them or not, as if she bestows her majesty upon us not at our invitation but by some cinematic variation of the divine right of kings.
Robert Taylor put his name to a lament in Modern Screen entitled "Why Did I Slip?", asking his fans why they have forsaken him. Though presumably ghosted like virtually all such articles of the time, its plaintive humility is touching:
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What are the contributing factors that cause a star to fall? Do you get tired of his face? Is it a question of bad stories? How much does adverse publicity have to do with it?... Don't think we stars don't realise when we begin to wobble. We don't soar around with our heads blandly in the blue while our feet are walking the plank... In my case it may well be said that I skidded because I'm not a fine actor. I know I'm not.
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And so on, for paragraph after agonising paragraph, until you just want to scoop the poor sap up in your arms, plant a big smacker on his forehead and feed him warm broth with a spoon.
But now listen to Nicole reflecting on the facts that her last two movies were hugely expensive commercial disasters and that she has not made a commercially successful film in nearly ten years:
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To be honest with you, it's never been important to me... I have very avant-garde tastes - that's just what I'm drawn to . Sometimes that means working on tiny, often unheard-of artistic endeavours, sometimes it means working with the likes of Baz on movies like Australia or Moulin Rouge which make big, bold, epic statements. I was raised on art and literature, and things that were left of centre... I make films that aren't everybody's cup of tea, I realise that. I get it. But that's where I am. If I were a painter I certainly wouldn't be painting for the masses. And I'm unwavering on this. I want to take risks... I like existing in an uncomfortable place artistically... I hope my life will be a mix of extreme love and bold artistic choices. I've never wanted to be safe. I've never chosen safe relationships. And I've never chosen safe films.
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Ah yes! Who among us can forget the wanton avoidance of safety that led her to play the love interest in Batman Forever? The left of centre, masses-be-damned risk-taking of bold artistic choices like the remake of The Stepford Wives? Or the sheer danger of the Bewitched spin-off?
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Forgive me while I rush back to My Wartime Morals, by Bonita Granville.