Sunday, August 31, 2008

Adrenaline Vaudeville

As we head into what, between hurricanes and Republicans, looks to be a singularly crummy week, let's dream of a better world via this shot of pure, 100-proof Show Biz, courtesy of Merv and the eternally youthful Miss Ann Miller.

Lypsinka, eat your heart out! And do wait around for the surprise special guest at the end. If looks could kill...

Appearing Nitely!

The Café is proud to present, fresh from their triumphant run in the Tiki Room at Fiji's glamourous airport Skylodge, the Skylodge band!

In deference to the coming month, we're trying to persuade them to wear shirts. At least for the early show. We'll see.  Actually, as we know all too well round about here, live music will not be happening for the next thirty days or so...

(Postcard cribbed from the inutterably fabulous Arkiva Tropika. Go and be amazed.)

Remembrance of Kitchens Past

At 4:35, everything changed forever.

"You know," she later said to Florence, "I would never have dreamed Edith was so jealous of Marie's new ice box. Not until she first swung the axe. Well, she never did have nice things, not on what Ed brought home from the box factory."

"That's the last time I ever wore that good flowered apron, too. Just couldn't get the stains out..."

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Big Sister

A rare solo shot:

Magda, the enigmatic Gabor. Come to think of it, I think she probably lived through Brenda Frazier. If only she were still here...

A Café Gallimaufry

Well, Gentle Readers, due to circumstances all too much under my control, the Café's connection to the Great Wide World has been, for the last several days, very much on the fritz.

Who knew that if you travelled for a summer and then got back and got rather busy and didn't, as the absolute top priority in your life, go spend the necessary hour in line to pay your bill, you might wake up one morning (one weekend morning, of course!, when everything is obdurately closed) with a sad little dark spot on the line of blinking lights on the tiny device that, through some technosorcery, makes it all happen? That dark spot, I've now learned, makes it not happen.

So, the weekend ends, you go pay, they turn you back on. It's like having a dealer in the old days. Not that I'd know anything about that.

In any case, I thought I would tie up a few loose ends I've been considering during the down time and give you some doubtless gripping details from the front:

It's lovely having readers, and it's even lovelier having ones who write. One gentle soul, for example, thought that the following brilliant piece of poesie might be a tad racy for general consumption, and so sent it privately. To avoid overuse of your fainting couches, darlings, I've lightly censored it:

There was a young man from Eurasia,
Who toasted his balls in a brasier -
'Til they grew near as hot
As the glamorous tw*t
Of Miss Brenda Diana Duff Frazier.

I admire it most for making optimum use of the lady's exquisitely metric full name.

Speaking of censored - I forgot, when chatting aimlessly not long ago, about how people find their way to the Café, to note the hands-down favorite of all posts, one that sports the following apparently irresistible image:

More titillating, apparently, even than Marisa Berenson nude!

A truly depressing number of first-timers drop by here having searched on "censored". Surely that can't be a realistic way to find - and presumably this is the goal - material worth censoring?

And speaking of readers writing, another (and was I excited to hear from one of my fave bloggers!) writes to update us on the erstwhile Annabella of Bow Wow Wow: there's a chance, apprently, that she's working in retail in southern California. I can only hope it's a shop that doesn't stock candy, or that she's become wholly unrecognizable. Or both.

Now, let me think...what else? Well, this weekend, Mr. Muscato and I finally saw Mamma Mia! Once past the initial shock at how it tries to batter one into HAVING! FUN!!, we actually did, a little.

In no particular order:

  • Meryl's predictably divine;
  • How did they get out of having to cast Bette Midler in place of either Christine Baranski or Julie Walters - or both (but at least we were spared Whoopi, although I would wager her name came up at least once in casting)?;
  • The gayische mini-subplot was unexpected fun (but mostly cut to bits, from what we could tell, for this region's delicate sensibilities); but
  • Colin Firth: not aging as gracefully as one might have hoped; and
  • Goodness, doesn't Pierce Brosnan look better than he sings (and didn't that part really call for additional shirtlessness)?

We also: had lunch at the metropolis's most unfortunately named eatery, a perfectly nice little joint that rejoices in the (one has to presume non-Anglophone-bestowed) name Stomach; visited the mall (well, it's still a thrilling thing in this part of the world, and I found the letters of Truman Capote); and actually read the papers, on paper.

If you know the local papers, you know that the loss of the Internet is a grave, grave thing.

Oh, and Ramadan being hard upon us, we shopped. The supermarkets for the next two weeks will be as if every hour is 4:30 on Thanksgiving Wednesday crossed with Christmas Eve. With a storm coming.

British Journalism, Victim of the "Love, Sydney" Syndrome

What is this, 1957?

From a feature in today's Telegraph, on Kevin Spacey's latest endeavor, a gig teaching at Oxford:

"One of Hollywood's more mysterious personalities, Kevin Spacey is urbanely witty and talks articulately and passionately about his work in the theatre while keeping his private life very much to himself."

Ick. Unless I'm much mistaken, an English translation of that might read something like this:

"gay gay gay gay gay urbanely witty gay gay gay gay private life gay gay gay shirtlifter poofter McQueen. Gay."

I've always liked Nathan Lane's approach; oblique, up to a point, yes, but infinitely more witty than clamming up and having your publicist force the interviewer to write pablum like that. When finally sick to death of getting asked The Question, Nathan replied: "Look, I'm 40, I'm single, and I work in musical theater - you do the math!"

Kevin's a lovely and talented man, no question - but how often do you have to get mugged cruising at 4:30 in the morning before you realize you're really (what with the Romantic Lead years now firmly in the rear-view mirror) not going to lose any roles by coming out?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

She Lived Through Brenda Frazier...

She was the Golden Girl of 1938, Deb of the Year; Winchell invented the word "celebutante" for her.

But she was just a fairly pretty, fairly ordinary girl with a very silly mother, and she led a very stupid life.

She drank too much and took to her bed. And stayed there.

Horrify your loved ones! Use this as your desktop.

Diane Arbus found her there sometime in the 60s and skewered her, as was her wont, like a butterfly on a pin.

Now she is, if anything, just a lyric by Sondheim. I suppose a girl could do worse.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Have You Met Miss Pym?

In Britain's dim, gray times after the War, when it seemed like rationing would never end and Empire was slipping inexorably away, a sharp-eyed young writer looked around at all that was cosy and middle-class and obliviously headed for, well, oblivion, and carefully dissected it: vicars and their long suffering wives, suburban church festivals, muddled anthropologists, and, especially, well-raised single ladies who were slowly realizing that, if they weren't careful, they would end up beneficiaries of the very charities for which they were now volunteering.

Barbara Pym was, in many ways, very like some of her characters: a tall, slightly gawky, thoughtful woman with an interest in food and what the neighbors (neighbours?) were up to. Knowing that she had her own blighted romances, earned an exiguous income editing a learned journal, and lived in a quiet district with her sister and the inevitable cats, one runs the risk of mistaking her for one of them: the somewhat neurasthenic Ianthe Broome of An Unsuitable Attachment, perhaps, or Excellent Women's lightly acerbic Mildred Lathbury (no fear, tho', of confusing her with the vile Allegra Gray!). This gives an unnerving effect to reading her published diaries - as if they were, somehow, an extension of the canon of her novels.

She had a mild vogue in the 1950s; then, a rejection letter from a publisher, and almost 15 years of silence. A brief renaissance after a mid-70s rediscovery was cut short by her death, but we are left with the books - simultaneously vivid and infinitely occupied with the minutiae of life, wry, funny, and often, especially at second reading, terribly sad - or, rather, melancholy.

They make, as another summer fades, lovely reading in autumn, I must say. And now I must run - Lady Finstock will be ringing in later this morning for tea and to pick up my last season's things for the Harvest Festival jumble sale...

One Name, Many Syllables

Björk Guðmundsdóttir

Björk is, among other things, something of an acquired taste - one I don't believe I have acquired.

With a profound admiration for either her native creativity or her choice in stylists, I'm willing to give her big props as a visual object (I even liked the swan dress!).

The real test comes when she opens her mouth. I think she generally sounds like a sick and rapidly weakening cat, which sort of ruins the gamine general effect.

Can't fault the outer-space geisha drag, though, no?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Oh, the Magic of His Glance!"

In this endearing mini-epic, Lebanese ultra-star Nancy Ajram plays a kittenish Beirut hairdresser who astonishes her BFF, her mother, her baby sister, and finally her extremely festive colleague and their customers with the story of a hunky construction work who made eyes at her.

And guess what? In less than five minutes, it crams in all that plus a happy ending!

Frankly, I prefer it to any rom-com made since Four Weddings...

Trio: Cassin LeSueur Crawford

Imagine a world with three Joans. Run for the hills!

If thinking about Princess Margaret doesn't, of itself, lift me from a mild funk, I try to bring to mind Joan's most cherished possession:

Her life-size portrait as a glamourous big-eyed Keane. Fame, even of the scale of Miss Crawford's, can't buy taste. And for that we should be grateful.

A Word to the Wise

That word is: Bouffant!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Image du Jour: The Lovemore Machine

I suppose this kind of thing is really more Princess Sparklepony's bailiwick, but I saw the following image this morning and was, as you'll doubtless understand, riveted:

Lucite (etched), ivory (carved), and tufting (pleather): I'm in love(more)

The gentleman is the new Speaker of the Zimbabwean Parliament. What he is sitting in/on/among - I'm less sure.

But I think I want one. It's like the command center of some African-Victorian spaceship - and surely that can't be leopard skin I see peeking out from the back of the barcalounger/throne thingie? Can it?

With politics so dire in Harare, who would have thought Parliament could be so festive?

But almost better than all of that: the Speaker rejoices in the splendid name of Lovemore. Lovemore Moyo. And I'm sure he does.


Diane Keaton used to be a rather boring actress in mostly terrific pictures; these days, she's a rather fascinating actress in mostly terrible ones.

Why does this happen? And where can I get those pearls?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Birthday Artistes

Here's another fairly amazing Birthday Trifecta. The only common thread I can see is a certain talent to amuse, although I suppose it's possible, however unlikely, that they all slept with Al Jolson.

Ladies first, and Ruby Keeler certainly did; she even went the extra mile and married him.

It almost ruined her, even as it made her a national name, and in later interviews she preferred not mentioning him. Sometimes I think it's too bad she's most remembered for her dated tapping and appealingly awkward emoting ("Gee, Mr. Kent - That'd be swell!") on film. She was a stage star, first and last, and tapped her way through her last triumph, in 1971's No, No, Nanette revival.

Next up: Elvis. Costello, that is. To those of us who came of age in 1980 or so, the Real Elvis.

I suppose he shares some of Ruby's geeky charm, but from angry young Attractions frontman to Mr. Diana Krall, he's kept moving on. Madonna gets the all credit for continually reinventing herself, but Costello does it without the hoopla, and in ways that are actually artistically invigorating, meaning he's always This Year's Model.

His collaboration with the divine Anne Sofie von Otter, For the Stars, redeems the whole idea of pop-classical crossover. Buy it now.

And last, the Great American Artist.

No snark possible; Leonard Bernstein was the real deal, and even, as here, in his seventies, a not inconsiderable Attraction himself.

"Polymath" hardly starts to describe a man who was a teacher, composer, conductor, author, activist, philanthropist, and lifelong enfant terrible. Nor does something reductive like "man of contradictions" adequately sum someone so egocentric and all-embracing, so joyous and so dark, so profoundly (and in the best way) moral and so hedonistic.

And no, I don't really think he slept with Al Jolson. Although, God knows, it would have been an interesting night...

Boy Wonder

Before the drugs, the rehab, the prison-sentence body-building; before the blackface and the Great American Comeback, here is Robert Downey, Jr.; just a lovely young actor whose face holds some mystery, the way that Real Stars' faces do, in even the blandest 80s dreck.

Nice hair, too.

Forget Beijing: This is Barcelona!

Freddie, Montserrat, and an amazing piece of ghastly/fabulous EuroPop Excess: who could ask for anything more?

Oh, technically it may not have happened at the games, but in preparation for them (by the time they actually rolled 'round, Freddie had Gone Before, leaving la diva to sing along with a video), but to me this is the unforgettable Olympic Moment.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Nursery Rhyme

There was a little girl
who had a little curl;

And when she was good,
She was very, very good -

But when she was bad -

She was better!

Although I'm not sure the somewhat skeptical-looking Simon Callow, seen here about to have his cocktail ashed, would necessarily agree.

Some days, all it takes is thinking about Princess Margaret to help me out of a funk. Is that so wrong?

Portrait Gallery: Leonardo, Is That You?

So, reports the New York Times, there is a possibility that this demure young lady with the inscrutable smile may be about to join a very exclusive society, one most famous, actually, for an inscrutable smile.

Yes, say some scholars, this is a forgotten and now rediscovered painting by Leonard da Vinci, one "almost too beautiful to be true."

No, say others, it's a moderately competent portrait of a woman of about the right period, and "a strangely cool and lifeless one at that."

As for me, well, I just don't know. She's lovely, no question, but somehow she lacks the passing-strange quality of La Gioconda, Lady with an Ermine, or John the Baptist. Leonardo certainly had many talented students, after all, and I can't help thinking that he somehow also had a better idea of just how a head sits on a neck.

Given that the painting last sold for a little under $22,000 and has, if the attribution holds, already had some interest in the neighborhood of $50,000,000, I suppose a lot of people do hope that the unholy combination of forensics and aesthetics don't detect some other hand in the picture, so small, so fragile, so mysterious.

In the meantime, she sits in a vault, awaiting a verdict more fraught than that for any Idol (American, Pop, Star Academy, you name it). If the thumbs are up, she'll be the biggest star in many years, and you'll soon be sick to death of seeing her on note cards, T-shirts, mugs, and tea towels; if not, she'll end up a curiosity to be relegated to some provincial museum.

And Madge thinks she has it tough!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Three on a Match

Here's a trio that must have been interesting backstage:

Blondell, Winwood, Bankhead: Hear No Evil, See No Evil, and Evil

How, one wonders, could a play starring these three Graces/Furies/Harpies not have been a smash? Well, Crazy October, a 1958 casualty up in New Haven, was definitely not.

Perhaps it was, if this summary is to be believed, because the plot sounds like the setup for a slightly queasy joke: "Tallulah plays Daisy, the proprietess of a roadside inn which she shares with a prostitute (Blondell) and a widow (Winwood), who is trying to get Daisy to cremate her husband."

In this context, why does "cremate her husband" sound like a euphemism for something much dirtier? And why is dear Miss Winwood dressed like Mamie Eisenhower? And to what extent is Miss Blondell actually having to prop her up? And (perhaps most tellingly regarding the fate of the play) why does Tallulah look as if she is going to swivel her head, drop her trick jaw, and devour the other two at one go?

We shall never know.

A Deep, Deep Peace...

Here we see, at the height of her distinguished career, the very last of the great actresses to retain the seventeenth-century affectation of being called only by her married name. Although born Stella Tanner, she was known the world over as Mrs. Patrick Campbell, despite the gentleman who bestowed that name on her having played only the equivalent of a walk-on in her colorful life.

She comes to mind today as the originator of one of my favorite quotes about marriage. Wedlock, she said, is "the deep, deep peace of the double bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue." And it really is.

I was pleased to discover, in checking the wording of the above, that she also came up with two additional contributions to the canon.

To a young actress, who had complained of the predilections of two of the gentlemen in their troupe, she said, "Does it really matter what these affectionate people do - so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses?"

And she more than earned her reputation as a scatty troublemaker, during her brief career as a second-string Marie Dressler at MGM, by sweeping into a party and trilling out to her studio's star producer, "Dear Mr. Thalberg, how is your lovely, lovely wife with the tiny, tiny eyes?" (Another version has her saying, in her usual stage-whisper, as Mrs. T. passed by, "Sweet Norma - she has such lovely little eyes - and so close together!").

Birthday Girl: You Might As Well Live

I've run this gorgeous/disturbing portrait before, but, given the subject's own more-than-ambivalent feelings about growing old, it seems an appropriate way to mark the 115th anniversary of the birth of little Dorothy Rothschild, who grew up to be funny, sad, immortal Dorothy Parker.

She was neither a happy nor an easy person, but at her best her writing is still as fresh as wet paint - if comic, it can make you laugh; if sad, it can make you weep. And that's just about as succinct a definition of good writing as I can think of.

We're Having Lunch at The Chedi Today

We're having lunch at The Chedi today.

Locals will know that this is Rather A Big Deal. I'm sure it will be wonderful - rich food, lovely atmosphere, a nice cold cocktail (once they're allowed to start serving, but don't get me started on that). I know that Mr. Muscato and I will have a splendid time.

The wonderful thing, though, is that we had just as good a time yesterday at lunch, in a little biryani joint behind a gas station, full of Indian guys enjoying their half-a-day off. And last night at a party with friends, on a roof looking out at the sea and the most beautiful silvery moon I've ever seen (and there we even brought the dog, making it all the more perfect).

I mention all of this, not because I want to boast about having lunch at The Chedi (I hope they still have their heavenly shrimp curry), or because I think our various comings and goings are of much real interest to the world, but because we are, as people do, having lunch at The Chedi to celebrate.

And what we are celebrating - I scarcely credit it myself - is five years. Which is something of a milestone, I think, not least in a world that has a habit at times of throwing roadblocks and brickbats our way.

So if you happen to be having lunch at The Chedi, and you see a pair of stout parties having a second Bloody Mary, well, now you know why. I hope you'll wish us well.

Sisters a Go-Go

Legend has it that the Vatican took one look at these leggy va-va-va-vestals and immediately decreed that, henceforth, all sisters religious should stick to pale-blue polyester pantsuits and shag haircuts.

Oh, and big, big crosses, so that you can tell that they're not kindergarten teachers or lesbians.

Or at least, not just kindergarten teachers and lesbians.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Four Horsepersons of the 80s Apocalypse

Rarely can an entire era be summed up in a single telling image, but this one comes close:

From left to right, meet Arrogance, Vanity, Greed - and Utter Fabulousness.

The hallmark of true vice is its secrecy; its downfall, the inevitability of exposure. Then, three of these were pillars of the community, and the fourth an unpredictable eccentric.

Today, we take for granted that one is a tiny megalomaniac, the second the victim of pitiful plastic surgery, and the third a domineering, status-obsessed (good-to-her-infirm-partner-in-crime, yes) shrew.

Virtue, on the other hand, shines through, and the last has only gone from strength to strength, refining and enhancing an existence that brings joy to millions. And who else would ever have had the balls to wear that to the White House?

Joyzelle, Redux

I came across this just now and thought y'all might like a look at the glamourous Miss Joyzelle, referenced below, in motion.

She's seen here in one of her rare two-named performances: in this unique little number, she is billed, eponymously, as "Panther Lady".

Enjoy. And then go thank heaven you didn't have to pay MGM's physiotherapy bills...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It's Funny 'Cause it's True

While we here at the Café generally do try and eschew the Political in lieu of the Fabulous, some times you just have to face facts:

Cindy McCain has more than one long-lost sister. And she wants more tequila!

Thanks to Bunkre for the extraordinarily good call!

The Mark...

...of lack of quality: Monogram Pictures.

Monogram was the top of the bottom, the elite studio, if such a thing is possible, of Hollywood's low-rent outlets, the studios collectively known as Poverty Row.

The roster was a mix of has-been, ex-stars, youngsters, and obscure attractions; the offerings a jumble of series pictures (has anyone ever actually enjoyed a Bowery Boys film?), low rent comedies, and Westerns; and the ambiance minimalist, rushed, and generally slightly seedy.

It was the studio where, among other things, Kay Francis took her fading career at the end of the War and where she was, briefly and for the last time, Queen of the Lot. Her "Monogram Trilogy" of 1945-46 tried to inject a rush of B/noir energy into the kinds of weepies she'd been making since the mid 30s, without much success.

Allotment Wives is probably the best of the bunch; Kay is a ruthless con-woman with a ring of chippies who steal from GIs. The weepie side (seen here) comes from the subplot, in which she's also a devoted mother coddling a spoiled child (paging Veda Pierce!). She does get a pretty fab death scene.

Wife Wanted strays a little too close to home - Kay is a fading star, dabbling in real estate, who falls into a "lonely hearts" scam.

And even Kay's diehard fans thought that a picture that treated divorce as A Fate Worse Than Death was silly - especially coming from an actress whose unclear number of husbands almost exceed counting on one hand.

It's hard to imagine that Kay Francis didn't know that taking her act over to Monogram was career suicide. Maybe that was what she was after. She shook the dust of LA from her feet and never made another film.

Hard Times in Toyland

The economic downtown is really starting to hit home...

First she lost Ken, then the Corvette, then the Dreamhouse - now this. Poor Midge had to come down to the station and bail her out in the middle of the night, which did not, I can tell you, please her partner, Francie, one bit.

And to think there was a time when she was America's top teen model, a nurse, a teacher, a fashion designer, an actress, a vet, a doctor, a lawyer, a ballerina, a TV anchor, an astronaut, and a presidential candidate.

Photo shamelessly cribbed from a competition.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Yesterday, When We Were Young

Bette Midler, 1972

Barbara Streisand, 1964

Aretha Franklin, 1960

The Primettes, 1959

Cher, 1967

Remember My [Singular] Name!

Our little tour of stars so nice they named them ... once, having so far encompassed Acquanetta, Movita, and the incomparable Charo, continues with an enigmatic lady known to film goers of the early thirties as:


She is seen in the fabulous snap above in the film - and costume - for which she is perhaps best remembered. In 1930's Just Imagine, she carries over her penchant for the short and snappy by portraying not one but two single-named characters, BooLoo and LooLoo (they're twins, you see, one good, one evil)...

Just Imagine is one of those little-screened, much-discussed films that, based on the stills, you think is going to be earth-shattering. Our girl, for example, is wearing in the shot above what was described as the screen's first all-mica gown! How could that not be riveting?

Well, it's not. Yes, there are lavish sci-fi sets - reputedly more elaborate than those used a couple of years earlier in Germany for Metropolis - and costumes to match, and an early appearance by Maureen O'Sullivan; but there is also way, way too much shtick that was old when Vaudeville was a tot, pacing that outdoes the creakiest pictures of even just a few months later, and - most fatally - El Brendel (about whom I have nothing to say except to warn you to avoid him like the plague. He's the kind of performer who can make you want never to see a movie older than six months).

As for Miss J., she is very, well, busy, in that way early Talkie performers sometimes are. Like Clara Bow at her worst, you're never quite sure if she's just peppy, or if there's some kind of neuromotor problem coming on.

During her brief vogue, Joyzelle seemed to specialize in characters in search of surnames. A quick check of the good old IMDb reveals that in a film career spanning only nine years (1926-1935), she managed to play: Saida, Salome, Conchita, Carmelita, Chanda, and Vavara, as well as LooLoo/Booloo (try saying that over and over again; it's quite diverting), and several iterations of just plain "dancer").

Beyond Just Imagine, there's really only one other moment of note for Joyzelle. In 1932, Cecil B. DeMille dropped her into his epic Sign of the Cross, where she plays a seductive pagan charged with leading virtuous Christian Elissa Landi down the primrose path.

It stands as one of the most humid moments in Pre-Code Hollywood:

It's good to know that even in Ancient Rome, she stays true to form; her name is Ancaria.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Real Tough!

I've just been in a New Wave kind of mood lately (although thankfully it hasn't extended to either my hairstyle or habits in eyeliner - yet).

Therefore, I think it's time for some Early 80s New Wave Water Ballet, a little-appreciated genre seen to perhaps its best advantage here, a highlight from the too-nearly-forgotten epic "Star Struck".

Before Muriel, before Priscilla, Australia gave us Jacky and her dishy little brother Angus, looking for fame, fortune, and romance in the Sydney underground music scene.

Aren't there times when all you want is to laze around on a rooftop, surrounded by dishy swimboys and inflatable sharks?

Portrait Gallery: A Pretty Nice Girl

In the late 30s, the exquisite Cecil Beaton took photographs of the then-Queen of England (this one's mother, of course) that made her look like something out of a fairy tale, a glittering creature in diamonds and tulle.

Some say those pictures alone did a great deal to enhance the monarchy's image as the country headed into World War II, helping ensure that Britain didn't follow so many of its neighbors down a republican path.

I'm not sure if Annie Leibovitz's recent portrait of the present Queen quite reaches those heights, but it is awfully atmospheric.

I find its combination of the regalia of royalty - the tiara, the furs, the room (the same White Drawing Room in which her mother was often snapped) - and the reality of a serene old lady (for that is, although it somehow seems surprising, what she is) really rather poignant.

The stillness; the turbid landscape outside (both like that in many classic portraits and somehow metaphoric of the world beyond the Palace gates); the desaturated light; and, just off center, a figure whose inscrutable expression reminds us that she is perhaps both the most famous and, comparatively, most silent person in the world.

It's rare, I think, for a photo portrait to carry as much weight as a painted one used to; this, it seems to me, does.

I think she's thinking of her mother.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Birthday Girl: Stop Calling Her Shirley

Let's raise a glass - or several - to mark what would have been the 88th birthday of a woman who may not have been the Greatest Star, but certainly might have been the Loudest: that heavenly creature who blazed her way across continents, genres, decades, and, from all accounts, dozens and dozens of gentlemen, the lovely and talented - both true! - Miss Shelley Winters.

As I imagine she would like to be remembered: blowsy and amused

Few stars have done more wildly different things over the course of a long career - Shelley was willing to take a stab at almost anything this side of hardcore to stay, if not on top, then at least along for the ride.

She did glamour (of a sort):
And almost 3o more or less pointless pictures, mostly Bs, before landing 1951's A Place in the Sun and a part that turned her somewhat raddled bombshell image on its side, turning her in the direction of the neurotic, pathetic underdog.

That allowed her to call on her Serious Actress training and revealed one of the secrets of her success: onscreen, an almost total lack of vanity. She was never afraid to go over the top, look bad, and, when called on to cry, really wail, as here in Executive Suite:

By the end of the 50s, most of her fellow former pinups would have died for the roles she was getting: The Diary of Anne Frank, A Patch of Blue, Alfie. She ended up with two Oscars, which is something you don't get just for being blonde and showing up (just ask Mamie van Doren).

She knew that one of the secrets of being a Star was keeping on being a working actress, and she took bad parts with good. She was never afraid of television (and who could have been more at home on "The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars"?), essaying a Batman villainness and, later, turning up on that essential moment of 70s kitsch, "Match Game":

She ensured herself a certain kind of schlock immortality by allowing her natural zaftig self to shine through in The Poseidon Adventure. I have no idea if the following is real, but if it is, darlings, you now know what I must have for Christmas.

Possibly the single greatest toy in history

She continued on, indomitably, through roles good - a hilarious turn as an agent in Blake Edwards's gleeful evisceration of his wife Julie Andrews's career, S.O.B.; her late, brief appearance in The Portrait of a Lady - and bad (anybody up for a screening of that Pauly Shore masterpiece Jury Duty?).

To me, though, Shelley would be an immortal even if her career had ended 40 years before it did - no Ma Parker, no Belle Rosen, no half-riveting, half-horrifying appearances on Johnny and Merv (although it would have deprived us of her oft-repeated stories of her onetime roommate, which usually started, "Marilyn was a Very Troubled Girl," and went on - and on - from there).

If she had never done anything after Willa Harper in Night of the Hunter, Shelley would still very much be on the Short List of Greats.

It is absolutely the apotheosis of her Suffering Prole period, as evidenced in this rather heated poster:

(and no, she does not portray a midget in the picture; but then again, Lillian Gish does not peer on, even more Lilliputian, from the middle distance; blame the illustrator)

The German edition hints at the actual flavor of the piece rather more accurately:

It's a part that captures both her real beauty and her equally evident foolishness; it's a brief turn that ends with one of the most haunting images ever put on film. Leave it to Charles Laughton to turn Hollywood brass (and who, in the end, was ever brassier?) into gold.

Many happy returns, Shirley-also-known-as, wherever you are...