Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Veronica Lake could be the epitome of "Hollywood": its beauties and its repercussions. Possessing one of the most photogenic faces ever captured on film, Veronica was ironically catapulted to stardom because half of her gorgeous visage was hidden behind a curtain of luscious golden hair. One eye, her left, was forever peeking out at viewers as they sat entranced, gazing back at her in worship. Several times over voted the #1 box office star, everyone's favorite actress, and Paramount's biggest moneymaker, Ronni seemed to have it all. Her diminutive but curvaceous body made her a popular pin-up during wartime, and her vulnerable yet cocky demeanor inspired women everywhere, who copied her hairstyle as well as her sensual bravado. Teamed successfully with Alan Ladd four times over in classics such as This Gun for Hire and The Blue Dahlia, Ronni also cut her teeth in comedy, making huge successes out of Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels and Rene Clair's I Married a Witch. During the early '40s, she reigned supreme as one of cinema's favorite sex-kittens. Then, inexplicably, she disappeared.
Veronica and Alan Ladd in their first teaming,
This Gun for Hire.
Veronica Lake is often recalled as being temperamental or haughty. Even easy-going leading man Joel McCrea refused to work with her after Sullivan's Travels in I Married a Witch, stating "Life's too short for two films with Veronica Lake." Joel would change his mind and work with Ronni again in Ramrod, but Fredric March, ironically Joel's replacement in I Married a Witch, too refused to ever work with her again after their infamous behind the scenes battles. She is recalled as a drunk, a party animal, a promiscuous tramp, and a bad mother. When she died in near anonymity at the age of fifty, a forgotten shell of the woman she used to be, people chose to believe this slanderous portrait of a once great star. But with Veronica, there was much more going on than meets "the eye."
Veronica enjoyed hiding her trademark hair in
Sullivan's Travels, here alongside Joel McCrea.
What few know is that Veronica was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic when she was a child. For years, she battled inner demons, delusions, and negative thoughts that sought to destroy her. Added to this biological nightmare was her tumultuous relationship with her mother, Constance, who tried to create-- in the grand tradition of stage mothers run amok-- a daughter who could live out her own dreams and desires for her. Overwhelmed by her mother's pressures, Veronica built up a thick skin, not only to hold herself together against Constance's persistent attacks, but also to keep the outside world from knowing about her disease. She remained distant, quiet, self-contained, and ever cool. Onscreen, this mystery would become a part of her allure, but off-screen, people would misinterpret this as aloofness. It was really armor. When her behavior, which she fought so diligently to control did get out of hand, or her idiosyncrasies got the better of her, co-stars and crew members would interpret her actions as that of a selfish diva, never comprehending the battle waging underneath.
Despite her alleged diva demeanor, it was Paulette Goddard and
Claudette Colbert who had the cat-fights during
So Proudly We Hail.
Veronica's fragile mental state did indeed affect her personal and professional relationships. She floundered through four unsuccessful marriages, had three children from whom in later life she remained estranged, and when the movies had sucked all the life out of her, she disappeared into obscurity in New York, Florida, and later England. At various times, when unable to find suitable employment, Ronni worked as a cocktail waitress or more infamously in a factory gluing flowers onto lingerie hangers. But this was not the real Veronica. This was the result of a lifelong battle with mental illness. Ronni was a fighter. And despite all of the bad luck that seemed to consistently come her way, she never drowned in self-pity nor painted herself as a victim. She didn't apologize for her later life or her inability to live up to everyone's standards. After all, she had done one hell of a job holding it all together up until the end, and as far as she was concerned, everyone could just shove it! She had paid her dues and was done apologizing. The world could consider her a failure if they wanted, but she never would.
Veronica in her older years, clearly aged, but the hints
of her former beauty remain.
Veronica Lake, originally Constance Ockleman, was and is a fascinating creature. More generous than most expect, more talented than given credit for, and stronger than most could hope to be, she fought a good fight up until the end. The sad truth is that no world is as glamorous and perfect as Hollywood paints it to be. Veronica Lake stands as the personification of this reality. She left Hollywood, as she herself would say, to save her life, and left behind a legacy of film and performance that lives on in untouchable flawlessness. Her outside life was indeed flawed, but she herself was not flawed in embracing it and doing the best she could. The true Ronni is the one who pushed her way through any obstacles that tried to keep her down, who resisted the misogynistic system of the Hollywood patriarchy in a way that would make Gloria Steinem damn proud, who dreamed of a simple life in a safe home that she could call her own and mostly a love that would protect her from the enemies who kept clawing at her. Beneath the tragedy, there lives the funny, smart-ass, good-natured girl who could both hypnotize you and knock you on your ass in one breath. That was Veronica Lake.
Showing off her mischievous side...
As the Christmas season approaches, it is wise to recall that good things come in small packages. Ronni, at 5'1" represents this fact well. Her contribution to celluloid history is gift enough for the salivating movie lover, and it is her mysterious allure that keeps her legendary face popping up in our modern culture-- from Jessica Rabbit to L.A. Confidential. Say what you will about Ronni, she gave good face, even if only half of it. The other half, with the rest of her secrets, she kept hidden and took with her to the grave. Her true identity, one that was fractured and dangerous, was too the one thing in her life that was not manufactured; that was her own. She rightfully chose to keep it for herself, and so we are left forever wondering and forever missing her.