documentary

FEUD & the Costuming of Bette Davis, What I’ll be Watching for

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis in FEUD Smoking

FEUD premieres tonight on FX, and like many classic film fans, I’m watching to see how legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are portrayed, and I’ll be paying particular attention to one area of costuming.

Susan Sarandon plays Davis. The latter actress, while capable of glamour and being beautiful onscreen, always favored her performances over the strictures of the star machine that led more wary or canny actresses to compromise on characterization in favor of not lowering beauty standards too far. Davis felt no restriction. She wanted her Mildred Rogers in OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934) to look as sickly as possible when the script called for that, and she pushed for her WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) costume to be more extreme than as originally designed.

Sarandon has shown a willingness to deglam onscreen for the right roles, but offscreen she’s been a poster girl for not looking her age or letting it determine whether she should be sexy on the red carpet and how. A favorite outfit of hers to wear to movie launches, so much so it’s almost a uniform, is a suit with no shirt worn underneath its jacket, often leaving a pretty bra visible for all to see. If her bra isn’t in view, its push-up effects leave no doubt of its presence.

I’m finding it ironic that an actress sartorially famous for her bras and gravity defying chest is playing one who eschewed underwire bras, despite being as generously endowed. As the recent Orry-Kelly documentary, WOMEN HE’S UNDRESSED (2015) revealed Davis was convinced wearing underwire caused breast cancer. The costume designer was left having to camouflage that the leading lady was undersupported or braless by “using foulards, pockets, buttons, and other visual tricks.”

So while I’m watching FEUD, I’m going to be looking at Sarandon’s silhouette to see if series costume supervisor Katie Saunders incorporated this particular quirk when approving designs. Like Davis knew, it’s paying attention to the little details that help a performer build and inhabit a character.

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Happy International Women’s Day 2016!

Anita Louise Autographed Picture

For International Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to remember a woman of words, Anita Loos.

She started screenwriting in the silent era, and she’s credited for elevating the intertitle beyond the functional into an art form. A wordsmith, wit, and satirist, her intertitles had zing. Yes, they had “It.” It’s likely her exposure to the family tabloid and her own newspaper writing made her value succinctness. Would it be even more of a stretch to suppose that this early education schooled her in the art of equivocal, particularly innuendo? She could write a line explaining a scene and poking fun at a star’s persona. When describing yet another one of Douglas Fairbanks‘ characters designed to show off his athletic prowess, she wrote he had “a vaulting ambition which is likely to o’erleap itself and fall on the other side.” She was getting meta before that became a thing!

She had an aversion to societal hypocrisy and the pitfalls of her sex, threads that run through her work, like in this line from Intolerance (1916): “When women cease to attract men they often turn to Reform as a second choice.” Instead she had a fondness for hustlers, loose women, and other characters usually viewed as disreputable undesirables. Exposure to San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and piers, when accompanying her father on drunken wanderings and fishing trips, gave her a glimpse of those types at a young age, and she never lost her fascination for them, and they populate her work.

The most famous example is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes‘ Lorelei Lee, a ditzy, gold digging flapper. Loos wrote the comic novel as an act of revenge. She was tired of seeing her male intellectual friends (and crushes like H.L. Mencken) fall for women with more “downstairs” than upstairs. Despite Loos’ upset over the inspirational situation, there’s an admiration for Lorelei’s wiles and ambition. Loos was a hard worker, and so was her creation, who through her kooky logic and machinations ultimately wins.

Despite a disastrous love life that included marriage to a controlling, abusive, narcissistic, spendthrift schizophrenic, she kept working and didn’t turn to drink or idleness unlike other contemporaries. She survived film’s transition into sound writing more screenplays and expanded her oeuvre to include additional novels, (likely fictionalized, but so much fun to read) memoirs, Hollywood biographies, and Broadway.

She even became a script doctor. My favorite example of this was her being called in to work on a property other male writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, couldn’t get right. They couldn’t relate to the source material. Fitzgerald thought it “a spiteful portrayal of femininity.” Loos loved the Clare Boothe Luce play. Loos was very familiar with its subject matter, an exposé of the cattiness, gossip, men-stealing, and gold digging of Park Avenues socialites and the wannabees. She delighted in dishing on what occurs behind the scenes in women’s spaces. She turned out a script in three weeks that remains a classic beloved for its zingers to this day–The Women (1937).

When she died in August of 1981, her drive resulted in a body of work spanning about 65 years. She remained a celebrity. The gamine, 4’11’ girl with the pixie cut had aged into a grande dame of the New York social scene, active and vibrant close to her end. She frequented the party, fashion, and arts circuits. She enjoyed being among the surviving few of the silent era able to share what ever stories she remembered or fabricated. Film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow interviewed her for his television documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980), and he must have had a fun time sorting fact from embellishment. “At the memorial service, friends Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, and Lillian Gish, regaled the mourners with humorous anecdotes and Jule Styne played songs from Loos’ musicals, including “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The storyteller would live on in others’ tales and through her work.

Anita Loos Reading

References

Anita Loos.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
Anita Loos.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
Anita Loos.” Women Film Pioneers Project. Women Film Pioneers Project, n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.
Hutchinson, Pamela. “Anita Loos – Sharp, Shameless Humour of the ‘world’s Most Brilliant Woman‘” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
Somerville, Kris, and Speer Morgan. “Anita Loos: The Soubrette of Satire.” TMR Content Archives. The Missouri Review, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.

#52FilmsByWomen

52 Films by Women Dance Girl Dance

During my recent blogging hiatus, I took a movie-watching pledge that’s perfect to share with you during March, which is Women’s History Month. I pledged to watch 52 Films By Women. I’m watching at least one film directed by a woman a week. I started fulfilling my pledge in January. I’m not alone in joining the campaign. As of today, 6,546 other people have made the same promise and are seeking out movies made by women film directors.

Women in Film (WIF) came up with the idea. They’re an advocacy group for women in media. Their goal is to see “gender parity reflected on and off screen” and ensure that “rich, diverse experiences of women’s lives are reflected on screen.” WIF “found that one of the barriers for female directors is a perceived scarcity of talent pool and experience.” Their 52 Films By Women project is a way to draw attention to the wide body of work from the silent era to today that’s available to be viewed, enjoyed, discussed, shared, and inspire future films.

If you’d like to participate, it’s very easy to. Fill out their pledge form here. Start watching films made by women. Share what you see with others. Tweet about the movies. Blog about them. Make Instagram, YouTube, and Vine posts. Remember to use the hashtag #52FilmsByWomen where appropriate. Talk to people about the movies. Organize your own home or theatre viewings. Have fun finding the work that is out there!

I’ve been sharing what I watch on Twitter, but moving forward I plan to feature the films on this blog. I’ve been selecting from the full time range of available offerings from the silent and classic eras to the present day, and the genres have varied within the formats of narrative film, animation, and documentary. I’ve been trying to make all movies first viewings and seek ones I’ve not seen before, but I was away on a trip last weekend, and while I watched a woman directed film in a theatre, it was one I’d seen previously. Maybe one week I’ll watch two to make up for that!

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Tab Hunter Confidential at CAIFF 2015

Tab Hunter Confidential Poster

Today we know that Hollywood heartthrob Tab Hunter had a secret. While he was working hard to become an actor appreciated for more than his looks, he was a gay man living in the closet, and that fact would have destroyed his career if it became common knowledge. It would have shattered his all-American boy image that peddled teenybopper magazines, records, and the periodic picture. The documentary Tab Hunter Confidential, an adaptation of the same-titled memoir, tastefully and lovingly tells his life story with a heavy focus on his performing career. The movie opened the 2015 California Independent Film Festival, the first time in the festival’s eighteen years a documentary was awarded that spot, at a sold out New Rheem Theatre.

Tab Hunter Confidential Q&A CAIFF 2015

Derek Zemrak, Tab Hunter, and Allan Glaser at CAIFF 2015

The Lamorinda-area crowd skewed older, and a great number of Tab Hunter’s peers and original fans were in attendance. During the screening, they gasped when later studio-era stars’ images from their heyday were flashed onscreen. I detected in the outbursts a mixture of reactions–admiration of beauty, recognition, and youth briefly recaptured. When idols were shown aged while discussing the past, much of the audience momentarily murmured as they discussed with their seatmates performers’ appearances. One of the loudest reactions came from the revelation that actress Dolores Hart had become a nun. Viewing the movie with such a vocal group added to my fun!

Tab Hunter in Grease 2

I wasn’t well-versed in Hunter’s story before the movie, and I was more familiar with his revival period films, like Polyester and Grease 2, than his “glory era” flicks, but I emerged from the screening impressed with his attitude and what he accomplished in his life.

Gertrude Gelien Tab Hunter Natalie Wood

Tab Hunter’s Mother Gertrude Gelien Visits Him and Natalie Wood on the Set of The Burning Hills (1956)

His German immigrant mother fled an abusive relationship and raised her two sons as a single mother. This would result in Hunter’s first name change. He was born Arthur Kelm, but his mother had the whole family revert to her maiden name Gelien. Finances were tight for the family, and Arthur Gelien started working at a young age. He was shovelling manure at a stable when he got word a film was being made nearby. He wandered over to watch the proceedings, and a chat with one of the actors, Dick Clayton, led to an introduction to agent Henry Willson, who specialized in representing pretty beefcake types. Willson invented Gelien’s third name. When Hunter rejected Troy Donahue as a potential moniker, Willson and Hunter agreed on Tab Hunter, a name inspired by the actor’s love of horses. A hunter is a type of competition show horse.

He soon landed his first lead role,  Island of Desire (1952), co-starring Linda Darnell. The stranded-on-a-deserted island plot meant that Hunter didn’t wear much in the part, and he photographed well, but he acted poorly. His embarrassment didn’t discourage him. He was determined to become a better actor and score better parts, but his studio Warner Brothers was content to market him as “The Sigh Guy.”

Tab Hunter Beach Still from Tab Hunter Confidential

There was repetition in the roles the studio assigned him. He was often cast as the younger love interest of an older or slightly older women (Island of Desire), as a soldier (The Sea Chase, Lafayette Escadrille, and The Girl He Left Behind), as a cowboy ( The Burning HillsGunman’s Walk, Gun Belt, and Track of the Cat), or some mixture of the other roles (Battle Cry and That Kind of Woman). He usually played the male lead and love interest and almost always the good guy. Gunman’s Walk gave him the chance to stretch his acting and play a villain, and he’d get a further chance to try edgier roles on TV like in Playhouse 90‘s live episode Portrait of a Murderer (1958).

Hunter had been a singer in his church choir, and to expand his career options, he cut a single for Dot Records called Young Love (1957). Unexpectedly it became a hit on the U.S. charts and knocked Elvis Presley‘s Too Much out of the number one spot. Young Love held the spot for six weeks. It fared even better in the U.K. where it was top of the charts for twelve weeks. Jack Warner was furious! He had Hunter under an exclusive contract, but Warner Brothers had no recording division, not since it sold off Brunswick Records. Warner’s releases were being licensed to other companies’ record labels, something that Jack Warner had been pressured to change by his executives. Hunter’s hit was the catalyst that caused Jack Warner to finally form Warner Bros. Records, and while Hunter never had such a big hit again, he steadily recorded for the label, and his singing inspired Warner to buy Damn Yankees‘ (1958) screen rights for the star.

Confidential Magazine Cover Featuring Tab Hunter

Hunter’s career had survived an attempted outing by Confidential in 1955. He had left agent Willson to be represented by Dick Clayton. The former actor had become an agent, and Hunter was more comfortable working with Clayton, whom Hunter trusted more. Willson’s client Rock Hudson was going to be exposed by Confidential unless Willson could make a deal. In exchange for Confidential dropping their Hudson story, Willson gave them stories on Hunter and Rory Calhoun. In 1950, Hunter had been arrested for disorderly conduct after leaving a pajama party attended by homosexuals. Calhoun had kept secret the time he had served in prison. Neither man’s career suffered. The public didn’t seem to care what Confidential implied about Hunter, maybe they didn’t believe its claim, and Calhoun’s bad boy reputation and roles were further enhanced.

Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood 1956

Jack Warner assured Hunter the incident would soon fade, and Hunter understood the role he was to play on and offscreen. The studio arranged dates for him, usually his latest co-star, and they would go out to functions together. Hunter enjoyed the dates. Even if he wasn’t interested romantically or sexually in the women he escorted, he had fun going with beautiful women to night clubs, parties, and premieres. He especially loved spending time with Natalie Wood, whom he adored like a “little sister.” Natalie never asked him why he never initiated anything romantic with her. They both knew they were out to promote their films and careers. Hunter remarked once they were done being photographed, they’d exit from the rear of a venue, and she’d run off to meet Dennis Hopper, and he’d go off to meet his real date. Debbie Reynolds was another beard, but she didn’t mind. She didn’t know Hunter was gay back then, but she had fun going out with him to events. “He wasn’t on the make, and women like that.”

Tab Hunter and Anthony Perkins

Tab Hunter and Anthony Perkins with “Dates”

Living in a time more conservative and traditional about sexual preference and identities and working in a field where he was required to present a very specific image of manhood, Hunter compartmentalized his life. He didn’t let his career prevent him from becoming involved with men, but he didn’t talk about being gay (a word he wouldn’t have known back then), or having lovers or boyfriends, and his studio didn’t ask him about his private life. They would protect him as long as he played his part and was a valuable commodity. Being raised by a strict, traditional German mother, he viewed his private life as something to be kept private whatever his sexual orientation was. In a story shared at the screening, he talked about how he never came out to her, but he’s sure she knew. After a romance with Anthony Perkins ended, she asked her son why she never saw Perkins anymore, and when Hunter explained they had drifted apart as friends, his mother thought for a moment and replied, “I’ve never been in love.”

Operation Bikini Poster

Three things other than Hunter’s sexuality ended his early film career. The studio put him in lesser quality films as the sixties went on. Nothing can hurt a career worse than inferior product. The type of films and roles became an issue. The public’s tastes changed. Leading men were becoming more complicated and less wholesome as American counterculture influenced the movies. Hunter seemed like a throwback to an earlier era as stars like Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson became popular. The biggest blow to Hunter’s career was a strategic move that backfired. Unhappy with the films Warner Brothers was putting him in, he bought his contract and became a freelancer. Film work, good or bad, became even harder to get. He went to Europe and shot spaghetti westerns.

Polyester Promo Still Tab Hunter Divine

When John Waters contacted him for Polyester, Hunter was performing in American dinner theatre, and he was game to take a risk and spoof his former screen image. He treated Waters and Divine with respect, and Waters said Hunter made his part work by never winking at the camera and romancing Divine onscreen as he had his more famous leading ladies like Natalie Wood and Sophia Loren. Hunter’s gamble paid off, and he not only got offers and hired for roles (Grease 2), but also he went into producing, and that led to him meeting his life partner, Allan Glaser. After some health issues like a heart attack and stroke, Hunter retired from performing, even though he could have continued working. He decided that he was done with acting, and he settled back into private life.

Tab Hunter CAIFF Best Documentary Award 2015

Derek Zemrak awarding Tab Hunter for Best Documentary at CAIFF 2015 (From the Tab Hunter Confidential Facebook Page)

What motivated someone like Hunter to tell his life story? He heard somebody else was writing his biography, and he knew since it was unauthorized they’d be able to write whatever they liked, true or not, and not in the way he would. In the film and in interviews, he says, “Why not get it from the horse’s mouth, instead of some horse’s ass after I’m gone?” He co-wrote his memoir with Eddie Muller first, and later Hunter’s partner convinced him to turn it into a movie. While Hunter doesn’t seem comfortable being a gay rights spokesperson, he does seem happy having his career recognized and being accepted by his fans. During the question and answer session post-screening, he told one laudatory gay man, “I don’t understand you young people,” and he went on to say but if you get something from my story then I’m glad.

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Added to the Must Watch List: Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

What would you do if you stumbled upon the work of a talented artist, completely unrecognized in her lifetime?  John Maloof bought a lot of photographic negatives at an auction. He hoped they would help him research Chicago neighborhood history. Instead he became the keeper and promoter of their photographer’s legacy. He tracked down her other work split between auctions and buyers, and he bought the majority. He used the random receipts, notes, and other papers boxed with her prints and negatives to find out her name–Vivan Maier–and to find those who thought they knew her. His documentary Finding Vivian Maier explores this art world sensation, a private person who mastered street photography, shared it with no one, and never elicited curiosity.

Maier often is compared to Emily Dickinson, yet that comparison only partially works. While both woman found fame posthumously, Emily submitted her poetry for publication, and some of it appeared in print during her lifetime, albeit in edited versions that removed her literary idiosyncrasies. She began corresponding with critic T. W. Higginson for writing advice. Even at her most reclusive, she maintained close friendships through her letters. They are intimate, emotional, and not the least bit guarded. We can read them because they were preserved by their recipients. Emily did not do the same. Near the end of her life, she asked her sister Lavinia to burn her papers. That was a common practice of their time. Lavinia complied, but stopped at the poetry. She then pursued publication of her sister’s work, which she and others accomplished.

Vivian Maier was not a recluse like Emily. She worked as a nanny, and she roamed the streets amongst people to photograph them. Her subjects ranged from the wealthy to the homeless, so she navigated through the nicer and rougher city areas, sometimes with her charges. Maier chose when to be out in the world and when she would lock the door to her room to it. People knew Maier took photographs, but they seemed to assume they weren’t of any import. She made no effort to promote or publish or show her work, and she left a lot of her film undeveloped in rolls. She showed no planning in what was to be done with her art. She left it disorganized in lockers, and she lost it when she could no longer afford storage fees. Maloof’s hope of historical treasure saved her work from the obscurity she had chosen for herself. Perhaps she would have hated that.

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