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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
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.
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:
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.
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?
Forgive me while I rush back to My Wartime Morals, by Bonita Granville.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

No Orchids for Miss Travers

She has a rather more exotic air than your average British actress: there's something of Cat People's Elizabeth Russell about her ("moia sestra?"); there may even be a trace of Gale Sondergaard there... It was obvious that a cinema as provincial, sober and pragmatic as Britain's would have trouble coming up with appropriate things for her to do.
So while she maintained a constant presence in British films for over ten years between the late thirties and the late forties, albeit usually in the second female lead, Linden Travers never quite achieved the stardom that was predicted for her.
Indeed, it may well have been the very obvious streak of steel beneath the elegance that made her difficult to comfortably cast in a decade with far more use for English roses than wicked ladies.
For a time she almost looked set to make a career out of playing second fiddle to Margaret Lockwood, supporting her in four films, including the Gainsborough melodrama Jassy (1947, in which she also had to share the audience’s attention with Patricia Roc).
Perhaps most famous of their joint ventures, made when both were ingénues, is Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Made in 1938, and the tenth of Linden’s two-dozen films, it showcases Lockwood as the perky, plucky heroine, but anyone who has seen the film will have no difficulty recalling Travers in the smaller but equally memorable role of ‘Mrs’ Todhunter, mistress of Cecil Parker’s incognito politician.
Florence Lindon Travers was born in Durham in 1913. The talented child of a talented family (her younger brother was the British actor Bill Travers) she excelled in drama, painting and sketching and from an early age declared an interest in appearing on stage. Her debut was in rep in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1933 and within two years she had secured her first West End lead in Ivor Novello's Murder In Mayfair.
The same year she made her film debut halfway down the cast list of Children in the Fog (1935), and for a time alternated film and stage roles, often playing a mistress, femme fatale or ‘designing woman’, just as frequently ingénue roles in light comedies.
Carol Reed provided her first real chance to stand out on screen with a small but attention-getting role in Bank Holiday (1938). Her stint with Hitchcock followed, then another for Reed: The Stars Look Down (1939). In all three, Lockwood had taken the lead.
For some reason she then found herself as female lead in a succession of star vehicles for British comics: Tommy Trinder in Almost A Honeymoon (1938), George Formby in South American George (1941), and - wonderfully spooky - in Arthur Askey’s best film The Ghost Train (1941). Here, and briefly, we get a hint of how good she would have been in proper supernatural horror film... Though she's great fun in Edgar Wallace's The Terror, still it's such a shame she wasn't cast in Dead of Night.
. Though she made a number of impressive appearances in forties films, she was rarely given a solo chance to shine. She stood out, despite comparatively limited screen time, in Christopher Columbus (1949), as the all-too understandable reason why King Ferdinand is too busy to give Columbus an appointment, in one of the four stories making up Somerset Maugham’s Quartet (1948) and in The Bad Lord Byron (1948) as one of the poet’s many admirers.
That same year, however, came her most important lead, one of her few true starring vehicles, and her own personal favourite.
She had, in fact, first played the role on the London stage in 1943 and so was a natural choice for the film version. The film was No Orchids For Miss Blandish, and it is, alas, not a title that means a hell of a lot to most people these days. In 1948, however, it was a sensation.
One review called it “the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever shown on a cinema screen.” According to the Observer, it had “all the morals of an alley cat and all the sweetness of a sewer”, while the Sunday Express reviewer hailed it simply “the worst film I have ever seen.”
Brief Encounter it most definitely is not, though probably the most shocking thing about it today is the fact that so controversial a production now merits nothing more prohibitive than a PG certificate on DVD.
It was nothing new, either, being the same basic set-up as in Faulkner's novel Sanctuary, filmed sensationally (in both senses) with Miriam Hopkins in The Story of Temple Drake. But that had been pre-Code, of course - Hays had held sway for some time when Travers's little nasty showed up, and how it was that the supposedly genteel British cinema came to produce a thriller about a sadistic gangster who kidnaps an heiress for ransom, then forces his attentions on her until she responds by becoming his willing lover, demands some explaining!
Among many British cinemagoers enduring the hardships of the war, a certain cynicism had become fashionable in the movies, typified by the voguish, hard-bitten heroes of American noir. The harsh realities of the conflict had made the world suddenly seem a lot less innocent, and bred a desire for less innocent entertainment. As a result, the censor felt inclined to lower his guard and if necessary avert his eyes somewhat in the interests of morale. The Gainsborough melodramas, such as The Wicked Lady, are one obvious example of this new policy, aimed as they were at the newly emancipated female audience, and filled with sex, sadism and heaving bosoms.
At the end of the war, with servicemen returning home to everyday life, it was noted that the novel of No Orchids by James Hadley Chase, a typical sexy pulp thriller of the sort that had been produced in their millions during the war, had been by some margin the most popular book among members of the armed forces. A film version seemed an obvious money-spinner and, in a way, would serve almost as a reward to those coming home: something they certainly wouldn’t have seen before they left. The film, unsurprisingly, was a smash hit, despite the horrified objections of critics neither prepared for nor willing to overlook its unprecedented harshness and sexual frankness.
. With the shock and controversy now only a memory, the chief value of the film today is as a reminder of just how fine an actress Linden Travers was. Her performance, shading from fear, through revulsion and on to uninhibited desire, is unlike anything else in forties British cinema.
Sadly, this most promising portent of greater glories proved to be not only her last lead role but also one of her last screen appearances of any kind. After Don’t Ever Leave Me (1949), supporting Jimmy Hanley and Petula Clark in a partial spoof of Miss Blandish, she retired from full-time acting to devote herself to her family.
Though she did make a few subsequent appearances on television, she mainly devoted her creative energies to painting and drawing, opening the Travers Art Gallery in Kensington with her sisters Alice and Pearl in 1969. After the death of her husband she travelled the world for a time, spending many months in Africa and India before finally settling in St Ives, Cornwall, where she resumed her painting, studied psychology and psychotherapy, and became a qualified hypnotist. (She certainly had the eyes for it!)
It was in these idyllic surroundings that she died peacefully in 2001 at the age of 88.