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Thursday, February 21, 2013


Just as "Superman" could only pretend to be "Clark Kent," George Reeves could only
pretend to be Superman. Yet, many film stars seem more heroic for performing
 superhuman acts off camera.

Despite evidence to the contrary, including the glossy sheen of celebrity gossip mags, movie stars are just people-- hence their appearance on the cover of People. We sometimes forget this, as their alleged humanity is hidden like a shameful secret behind publicist bodyguards and airbrushed elegance. The fact that some of their bodies withstand the effects of unconscionable amounts of barbiturates is also puzzling. However, word on the street is, our heroes aren't any different or any more impenetrable than you or I. George Reeves made this point vividly when he proved that he was not faster than a speeding bullet. True, true-- being famous does not make one "big" nor important. You have money: congratulations. God gifted you with a perfect profile: hallelujah. What else have you got? What makes you so damn special? The stars that really turn the head are the ones who, in the words of the incomparable Anthony Kiedis, "Give It Away." Those who use their celebrity and fortune to help others always seem to transcend the narcissism attached to the film profession, particularly when their good deeds are not performed at a press junket or a well-publicized benefit. When these acts come off the cuff, in the heat of the moment, and out of the spotlight-- sometimes before the celeb is even a celeb-- one can be assured that the individual performing various acts of decency is in fact a decent human being. Only then, does one seem superhuman. FYI:

Audrey Hepburn (left) would garner a lot of respect throughout her life, particularly in her later years when she donated so much of her time and effort to UNICEF-- an organization once championed by Danny Kaye. However, Audrey's acts of courage actually began quite young. In 1944, Audrey was living just outside Arnhem in Velp-- a town in the Netherlands. Thus, she would be very close to the ensuing chaos brought on by WWII when Arnhem became the target of one of history's most notorious bombing raids. Her extended family, some of whom were staying on her grandfather's property in Oosterbeek, actually filmed home movies of German and British soldiers battling on the lawn and dropping from the sky in their parachutes. The Arnhem Bridge alone was a major focal point of Axis versus Ally gunfire. The most that the scattered citizens of this area could do was duck and cover, keep their heads down, and wait for the storm to pass. However, Audrey and her mother Ella did more, often providing lodging and food for Allied soldiers. It was a risky venture, and while Ella made certain not to put her own daughter's life in too much danger, they participated when they could.

One example of Audrey's fortitude occurred during the September raid. It was discovered that an English soldier had parachuted from the sky and landed lost and isolated in the woods near Audrey's temporary home. When patriots learned of his presence, and the fact that he was surrounded on all sides by German soldiers, Audrey-- with her impeccable English-- was sent to deliver a message of warning to him. Legend would have it that Audrey led the soldier to food and shelter, where he was at least able to rest and recuperate as much as possible before he was finally captured as a prisoner of war. He too was rumored to have given her a silver medal with the Lord's Prayer on it, which was his only possession at the time. However, this is a bit embellished. It seems that the extent of the action was thus: Audrey took a brisk walk through the forest, under the guise of a bored teenaged girl getting some air, and traded information with the soldier. She then picked some flowers and skipped home as if everything was hunky-dory-- a good move, since she passed a German soldier, at whom she smiled and handed her bouquet. The dumb cluck never suspected a thing. It may seem like a small thing in retrospect, but had her agenda been discovered, Audrey may have been captured... or worse. In any event, her efforts assuredly saved the English soldier's life. (Don't let the sweet face fool ya'-- she's deadly! Audrey right in Paris When It Sizzles).

During his reign as the ultimate Hollywood cowboy, William S. Hart (left) would be viewed as a hero to many. However, one of his most impressive and selfless deeds would be performed long before he ever got in the saddle at Triangle Film Corp. with filmmaker Thomas Ince. Back in 1895, when flickers were still just starting to flicker in the public imagination, Bill was traveling with Madame Rhea and her acting company performing in such plays as "Much Ado about Nothing." It was a rough life traveling from city to city, state to state, and during this particular run, Hart and the troupe trekked all over the Great Lakes region. While passing through Michigan, life went from uncomfortable to downright tragic. Due to some unknown glitch or mishap, the train carrying Bill and his actor comrades derailed and actually flipped over! Luckily, Bill made it out ok with the expected cuts and bruises. However, the engineer and the train fireman were both trapped! Bill could hear them screaming from their place in the cab. Although his vision was blocked by clouds of steam, he was able to follow their voices to their location where he had to actually bend steel to free them and pull them to safety. The engineer fortunately survived, taking home a broken arm as his trophy. Unfortunately, despite Bill's efforts, the fireman was not so lucky-- he passed away with Bill's coat wrapped around him. It was certainly a moment that Bill would never forget, and it prepped him for his future work, in which he did more than one scene on a moving train.

Charles "Buddy" Rogers is recalled as being the adorable boy next door-- albeit maybe in better shape, (see right). A simple, down-to-earth guy, he was surprised to find himself making films in Hollywood when all he'd ever wanted to do was devote his life to jazz-- he played the trombone and various other instruments. At one time, he even led his own orchestra, which included the legendary drummer Gene Krupa. Yet, with his father's half-teasing suggestion, he did find himself before the camera and is today cemented in history as not only a star of the first Oscar winner for Best Picture--Wings-- but as the third and final husband of none other than Mary Pickford. Someone has to be pretty special to steal "America's Sweetheart" from Douglas Fairbanks, let alone keep her, but Buddy did that with his natural, sweet temperament and generous heart. However, an act worthy of true admiration occurred a mere month before his became the new Emperor of Pickfair. In May of 1937, he was in his hometown of Olathe, KS getting ready to perform with his swing band. It just so happened that the hot jazz singer Connie Boswell was playing at the same venue. This fact would prove very fortunate for her. See, Connie liked her ciggs: so much so that she accidentally fell asleep in her dressing room with one still ablaze in her hand. The couch caught fire! Buddy, who must have smelled the smoke, rushed in and was able to pull her from the burning furniture and beat out the flames before they literally snuffed her out! Good thing, or else her fans would be singing "Say It Isn't So" about her untimely death! (Ironically, Buddy's debut song on Broadway was "Hot-cha!").
Charlie Chaplin would play the accidental hero in many of his films. From saving the drunken millionaire from suicide in City Lights to rescuing Jackie Coogan in The Kid, he always found a way to save the day-- amidst much comedy, of course. However, he performed some actual life-saving daring-do in August of 1917. Following the release of his latest hit, The Immigrant, Charlie and his film company were shooting his next feature, The Adventurer, on the Sierra Madre coast. Of course, the presence of a major movie star caused quite a stir among the locals, who made their way to the seaside to watch him and his crew as they made magic on the beach. Unfortunately, one little girl became a little too absorbed in the action. Sitting on a large rock in the water, she was knocked from her seat when a huge wave came crashing over her. Though he was a very fastidious and focused man while working, Charlie couldn't help but notice that! In fact, he dived into the waves to save her. He pulled the shaken girl ashore, and she was soon warmed and back to normal-- though she certainly remained in a bit of shock, first from the near-death experience, then from her unexpected meeting with the Tramp (left). It was big news, of course, and made all of the local papers. Little Mildred Morrison had come to the beach that day to see her hero. Little did she know that she would actually be heroically saved by him!

Despite his occassional, diabolical on-screen performances, Lon Chaney represented to some a guardian angel. His countless acts of kindness and charity over the years did not go unnoticed by his peers, though he always maintained anonymity when giving himself to any cause or helping any person in need. It was the deed that mattered, not his personal reward. In 1926, he would perform in one of his favorite films-- with no make-up-- Tell It to the Marines (right). However, he'd had a brush with the military a few years prior when he met Sgt. Frank McClouskey. The Sergeant was a veteran of The Great War whose own heroic deeds in serving his country, and in effect the world, had ended tragically with severe injuries. The mental effects upon returning from the devastation of battle is one thing, however McClouskey too had to handle the physical results-- he had been rendered partially paralyzed. One need only watch Lon's performances in The Shock, West of Zanzibar, or The Black Bird to realize that he had a particularly soft spot for the crippled and "infirm." So, he made it his mission, out of respect for the Sergeant and his bravery, to pay for an operation that would correct the malady. The operation was a success-- a fact that was proven at Lon's own funeral in 1930: Sgt. McClouskey paid his respects and showed his eternal gratitude to his own hero by standing at attention and guarding Lon's casket for the entire three day wake. In a room filled with family friends, many of whom were deaf-mutes like Lon's parents, McClouskey's statement conveyed more than words possibly could.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

TAKE 1, 2, 3: Blessed Virgins

Oh, Sister... Debbie Reynolds makes the sound of holy music in 
The Singing Nun.

In answer to the Roman soldier of God post I did a few weeks ago, I thought it appropriate to offer the female equivalent. At first glance, the Nun may seem like the least likely candidate for a Hollywood heroine, but this character has been refashioned for the screen multiple times, from The Bells of St. Mary's to Sister Act. We've made a habit (ha, haha) of both extolling the virtues and questioning the agenda behind a life "of the cloth." As women in film generally fall into two categories, the virgin and the whore, exposing the complicated nature of a Nun is the most symbolic way that screenwriters and filmmakers have used to interpret the good and evil in mankind. Ironically, when holding the mirror up to womankind in her purest form, we have sometimes received provocative and intriguing answers regarding the nature, not only of womanhood, but of the very soul of humanity. It was hard to choose which films to discuss for this article, since there are so many of interest-- Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison or Doubt, etc-- but in selecting the following three, I think I will more ably be able to zero in on the "three faces of Eve": the Good, the Evil, and the Human.

The Good

Cynicism has put a great dent in the faith of mankind, as has Time. Certainly, there are still practicing Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, etc, but living in the modern era, it is often difficult to be allegiant to a religion devised so long ago, which consequently instigates wars and constantly reveals itself through varying levels of hypocrisy. We fall on our knees in times of great struggle, sometimes praying without even realizing we are doing so, but the average person no longer seems to keep the concept of God in the same untarnished and unquestionable position as our forefathers. Ironically, today it is almost a sin to utter the name of "God." Have we forgotten him or outgrown him? These are questions every man must answer for himself, and they are equally questions that make films like The Song of Bernadette (1943) seem a bit peculiar by today's standards. Yet, despite the highly devout nature of the script, the film somehow transcends modernity and skepticism.  The beautiful performance of Jennifer Jones as Bernadette (left) and the surprisingly complex portrayal of the various other supporting characters in the film illuminate faith as something very real and worth discussing, and finally worth embracing. It is how we react to miracles and how we approach conflict that determines our spirit. Whether the Holy Spirit is a man made creation or an intangible presence in human life, in this film, it wears the face of true innocence and piety, making believers out of even the most mistrusting of men and evoking emotion from the stoniest of hearts.

The plot of The Song of Bernadette follows the title character as she unexpectedly finds, introduces, and renews faith in her community-- the French village of Lourdes. A soft-headed, sickly girl, "Bernadette" is generally harmless. She has vague plans of getting married some day, perhaps to the nice Antoine (William Eythe) who lives nearby, and having a family of her own. Her own family is poor and-- more often than not-- Bernadette, for all of her sweetness, is still viewed as somewhat of a burden to them. Then, one day, when Bernadette is left alone by the river, she has a vision of a beautiful woman (in a strange cameo by Linda Darnell, right). She is moved by what she sees, is totally peaceful and adoring, but only she can see or hear what the great "Lady" says. When she shares this news, no one believes her, of course,  and her claims are made even more hysterical by the fact that she has had her vision in such close proximity to the city dumping ground. Yet, she continues her pilgrimage to see the Lady, who has asked her to come for fifteen straight days. Soon, her disapproving parents, the skeptical Priest, the town doctor-- a man of science-- are all won over to her side. Whether or not they believe in her vision, they believe in her-- her purity, her innocence, and her good will.

Bernadette defends her visions to Prosecutor Dutour, and her honesty and calm reason
trump his textbooks every time.

The only sect that does not believe are the lawmen, represented most fully and of course villainously with the always elegant and sinister Vincent Price as "Prosecutor Vital Dutour." Why is it only men of man-made laws that seem to fear her? Perhaps because they are not of the earth or nature. Even Lee J. Cobb's "Dr. Dozous," who is ever-rational, is still a man who uses the earthly elements to cure the sick. Law men only have their words and personal fabrications. They are threatened by the power that Bernadette peacefully and accidentally accrues, as throngs of followers begin to join her as she kneels before the Lady in her nightly prayers. The Priest, played by the crinkly-faced Charles Bickford, too combats his own doubts and is forced to confront his apparent lack of faith in man, which he rediscovers in Bernadette. But Price's prosecutor and his fellow cronies cannot fathom what has not been written down, and they too perhaps feel a sexual need to destroy Bernadette's purity and chastity: even a modest, unassuming, agenda-less girl like herself is harmful to them for the mere fact that she refuses to demurely sit in a corner and follow their rules. To add insult to injury, she serves, not even God, but the Lady, whom she describes as "The Immaculate Conception"-- a title that leaves the community bewildered.

In time, and due to much business that I won't go into, a spring erupts that brings with it mystical healing powers. Bernadette is now looked upon as a Saint. Her contact with this strange Goddess, whom she cautiously never refers to as the Blessed Virgin, has resulted in a much in-demand, natural elixir that heals the sick, cures the blind, and allows the crippled to walk. Bernadette carries no pride or honor for her deeds. She, simple-minded as she is, sees nothing strange about what she has done, nor does she feel the need to claim any sort of reward or glory for it. Jones, in her portrayal, is the epitome of innocence-- of goodness. She is selfless, kind, uncomplicated, but real. We never believe that Bernadette is immaculate herself, just that she, as a real girl, was chosen to be a vessel through which holy information comes. The accidental way that her natural knowledge always undoes the learned lawmakers and their own brand of reason is also continuously comical. Finally, when she is encouraged to continue her Godly work by becoming a Nun, she takes pause. She is not totally certain that she wants to leave behind a life of earthly love to continue seeking the divine. Yet, she is easily convinced that it is the proper path. She has been "called," and as a simple girl, she will follow where she is led. (Bernadette walks away from a life and love that could have been, left).

For many years, Bernadette does not see the Lady again, and her hours are spent in prayer, reflection, and staving off the icy attacks of fellow Sister "Marie Therese," (Gladys Cooper, right), who is insulted that all of her years of servitude have not been rewarded with the enriching visions that the novice Bernadette has attained. The work of a Nun is not a vacation. It is a hard life of isolation and obedience. Bernadette, of course, never complains, not even when it is discovered that she has a painful tumor growing on her leg. She is also continually tested about her prior claims by religious authorities, who still do not believe her tales and visions, but she steadfastly maintains her stories. As she finally dies, she sees the Lady once more. One wonders, as she shudders with her last breath, if all she gave in her life was worth it? What, in the end, did it all mean? The spring she once brought to life eventually became a gimmick for the local lawmen to draw in travelers, and the "holy" water is now sold as a product. The miracles that she worked-- except in the memories of those who knew her-- will seemingly die with her. Yet, it does seem worth it, and director Henry King's handling of the story convinces viewers that such simple things of beauty, such innocent creatures as Bernadette, such selfless actions, and above all, such messages of love, are all that count in life. The "song" of Bernadette may have only been understood by those nearest her in her own lifetime, but if we listen closely, we can still hear the music in our own. The trick is to avoid hypocrisy and abandon all rules but the golden one. If we live openly with the heart of a child, we can have a paradise on earth of our own making.

The Bad

Black Narcissus (1947) couldn't disagree more. If Bernadette was about how faith renews life, Narcissus is about how faith kills. The essential ingredient needed to make faith palatable-- and a shared experience between the earthly and the divine-- is people. Community. Brotherhood. This is why faith grew and thrived in Bernadette's small town of Lourdes. The plague of Black Narcissus is the plague of isolation. The Nuns are not sisters of Man, they are servants of God-- detached, cool, lifeless. Deborah Kerr leads the cast as "Sister Clodagh," and her usual stunning beauty is paled and starched to show the absence of flavor in her life. She is given the righteous task of being the youngest Sister Superior to manage her cohorts in Mopu, where they will form a hospital and school for children and young girls. It feels more like a punishment than a reward. The castle in the sky to which the Sisters arrive stands on a great precipice, (which gives one vertigo even from the comfort of the couch, see left). The sole sound of life that echoes from the Old General's donated Palace-- which used to house his ancestors' many mistresses-- is the large bell that tolls the hour and calls the sisters to prayer. Looking down as "Sister Ruth" (Kathleen Bryon) rings the bell as part of her daily task, it is strange to note that, though high above the village below, it seems that the Sisters are the ones in Hell. Peace and life are found with the local people, including the new, younger General (Sabu), whom the sisters take to calling "Black Narcissus." His presence is not welcomed at first, for he is a man, but as he cleverly points out that Jesus was too, Sister Clodagh agrees to take him in as a student.

Another snake in the grass is "Mr. Dean" (David Farrar), who at all time tests the faith of the sisters and flirts with them as well, making fun of their faith and counting the days until their lifeless isolation forces them to abandon their pie in the sky ideals. The sexual tension between him and Sister Clodagh is very poignant, but initially, his charms and chauvinism have no effect-- except on Sister Ruth. All the sisters are effected by Mopu in different ways, it seems. The Palace stands not as a place of healing nor peace, as they had intended, but in time it comes to serve as a test for their own faith and stamina. This far away from people-- in this heightened experience of isolation, the constant wind, and the constant cold-- each nun is left alone with only her own thoughts for company. No matter where they turn, each woman is forced to come face to face with herself. 

The results manifest themselves in different ways. The good in some is brought to the surface; the evil in others. Sister Ruth is suddenly ruled by an incurable lust and an obsession with Dean. "Sister Philippa" (Flora Robson) is filled with guilt over her own memories, which make her lose track of time and botch her gardening duties. The past brings her pain, and she lacks the courage to face it. She begs Sister Clodagh to send her away to no avail, for Kerr's hard-lining and hard-nosed Sister Superior won't allow any of them to bow to weakness. However, her Sister Clodagh is also forced to face her past, but when she does, color begins to return to her face (right). In her flashbacks, we see Sister Clodagh as a young woman in love, with her childhood family, with dreams... She slowly rediscovers her own humanity and her passions, and as a result, she eventually comes out from hiding behind her orders, dictates, and structures. The parts within that all sisters attempted to bury, thus, come to the surface. They tried to use faith as a shield from themselves, and now they are to be punished.

The tension that all of these revelations cause is harsh to the senses. In fact, the film is at times difficult to even watch, because the horror and dementia each Nun undergoes is so perfectly communicated by the at times taut, at times languid, at times beautiful direction. The entire story unfolds as a tease, as if one were falling asleep bored only to find oneself suddenly in the midst of a bad dream! The only moment of true vibrancy comes from the sinful and vain "Kanchi," played without a word by the always stunning Jean Simmons (left,with Sabu). She eventually steals the equally pompous but charming young General away for a sexual escape, and when these tokens of colorful life disappear, all Hell breaks loose. Indeed, when a young child dies in the Sisters' care, the entire village abandons them, thinking them cursed, or hexed, etc. Now, they have only each other to face, all with their spirits breaking and their convictions shattering. 

Sister Ruth brazenly decides to leave the convent and goes through the wilderness to reclaim her forgotten womanhood with Dean. Unfortunately for her, he wants no part of her maniacal seduction. He has clearly fallen in love with Sister Clodagh, whose stubborn defiance and forgotten self has touched him. (Even nuns, it seems, can get involved in the occasional cat fight). And so, Sister Ruth-- in full lipstick and civilian regalia-- climbs the long way back up the mountain to paint the Palace red-- with blood. Sister Clodagh waits, sweating, as if knowing her fate is approaching. Sister Ruth could even be read as the most evil, highly sexualized, gluttonous half of Sister Clodagh's character. Sister Clodagh fears her, because she sees a self that has remained a dormant threat to the vows that she took before God so long ago. The nearly psychologically broken Clodagh goes to ring the mighty bell for the last time, as the desperately creepy and menacing Ruth (right) lunges for her, trying to push her into the abyss! Sister Clodagh triumphs; Sister Ruth plummets to her death. The evil parasite has been exorcised.

The stunning photography of the notorious Jack Cardiff blends the beauty and 
horror of the infamous palace of mirrors.

Despite Sister Clodagh's triumph, the time has still come to abandon the Palace on a hill. The message seems to be that one should not attempt to grow closer to God as the cost of losing your humanity. God created life so that people could live it, not hide from it, as the sisters learned during their sojourn in Mopu. As the Nuns descend the mountain, the castle gets swallowed up by the clouds, as if it never existed-- as if they were in an intangible place and have been spit back into the real world. Despite everything that Clodagh has faced, she has been reconfirmed in her commitment to the cloth. Yet, we see shades of her young self as she extends her hand to Dean during their final goodbye. Demoted from her position, she has a long way to go in repairing the damage and shame that she has brought to the Sisterhood during the tragedy of Mopu, but she is willing to start over. Then, she and the sisters disappear into the fog from Dean's view, again, as if they had never existed. He has learned something of his visceral cynicism too-- that there is a state of being more intense and pure than the one that he chooses to recognize. The idea is that salvation is found in combining the two mindsets to find the perfect formation of life on earth.

The Human

This brings us to The Nun's Story, and it is indeed a Nun's story. The film's tremendous success can be attributed to both the intelligent and complex performance of Audrey Hepburn (left) and the depth and realism of the plot. Unlike Bernadette and Narcissus, who merely grazed the surface of what it means to leave one's life and one's self behind to enter into a life of religious servitude, The Nun's Story is all about that decision: the sacrifice, the obedience, and the harsh reality. Throughout history, the reasons of entering the nunnery have been that of necessity (a landing place for an unmarried girl who is a burden to her parents or is being punished for deviant behavior) or naive piety. From the outside, it seems easy. The church is a safe haven away from man's temptations and issues. Money is not a concern, sex is not a concern, and while one must get by with very little luxury or comfort, the reward for devoting one's life to God is believed to be enough. We have imagined these women quietly pacing behind the convent walls-- some of them angelic, some old and crotchety-- but never before this film has the harsh duty, discipline, and psychological torment that they endure been brought to life. The cliches are broken. Nuns are neither flawless super-humans nor dried-up spinsters with no other haven. They are your run-of-the-mill, fallible mortals, and the human battle that they endure on a daily basis is not some meek challenge to be sniffed at. Leaving one's life behind may be easy; but leaving one's soul is not.

Gabrielle sheds her vanity with her hair.

The film opens with Audrey's "Gabrielle" (soon to be "Sister Luke") entering the convent. Everyone tries to stop her: her father, her siblings, etc. They don't understand why someone such as herself-- so rebellious, it seems-- would give up her life to be, as they see it, tucked away from the world. Her father (Dean Jagger) tries to talk her out of it, but Gabrielle has made her decision. Her rebellion, her strength, is surprisingly what draws her to the sisterhood. She is a young woman with something to prove. Her determination to accomplish, perhaps in her family's eyes, the impossible is what appeals to her. She seems almost to be a masochist, and while her father warns her that the call to obedience will be a hefty chore for someone such as herself to follow, she quietly considers this a salivating challenge. She wants to conquer all doubt and conquer her self. We know little of her life outside the convent, other than the fact that she is leaving some pining man behind. Her decision to give him and her freedom up is the result, apparently, of nothing more than her iron will. 

Gabrielle undergoes all the usual processes and steps in becoming Sister Luke. She must learn to empty her head of selfish thoughts, she must employ only modesty-- which includes hiding her hands in her robes-- and most difficult for her, she must conquer her own pride. The Nunnery seeks to dilute all traces of vanity, thus all traces of individuality, personality, and color. There is no Sister Luke; there is only the body that operates as God's servant. Sister Luke finds these tests hard to take (see, right). She has countless sins to record in her prayer book every day. Her pride becomes a major factor, particularly when she is training in medicine, so that she may attend patients in hopefully a foreign terrain-- her dream. Like her father, she wishes to be a doctor, but better than him, she wants to serve both God and man in doing so. Yet, when she excels in class, it evokes the envy of another Sister. She goes to her Superior to ask for advice and is told that, to aid her Sisters better, she must show humility and fail her next exam. To Sister Luke, this is a sin greater than even she can accomplish. To deny this last vestige of herself-- her intelligence and her ability to help others-- is a submission she will not undergo. She passes her exam with flying colors, but is punished for this vanity when she is not immediately sent abroad to the Congo as she wishes. Still, she digs in her heels and keeps going. Not everyone is so patient nor so brave. Sisters-to-be drop like flies. Sister Luke makes it to the end of her training, and as is her wish, she is finally sent to the Congo.

Much like Mr. Dean in Narcissus, "Doctor Fortunati," played superbly by Peter Finch (left), fills the role of the masculine, sexual advancer in the film. He is Sister Luke's counterpoint. He challenges her beliefs with his science, he evokes her forbidden sexuality, but mostly he tries to wheedle out the passions of her former self. The sexual tension between them is never overt nor sensual. It is all subtlety. The misunderstanding and irritation that they have for each other quickly turns to mutual respect, as Fortunati realizes that Sister Luke is no ordinary Nun. If nothing else, she is a great nurse and medical aid. What's more, he can see the woman inside, as well as her constantly battling conscience, which leaves her tired, weak, and eventually bedridden. There are no come-ons. There is not even any touching. But, you see in their mutual body language and attentions to each other that, in another life, in another dimension, they would have been soul mates. Then again, perhaps Sister Luke's protective habit, which separates them, is the only thing keeping them together. When she pulls away from the Congo in the train, sent back to Belgium, and you see the disappearing figure of Fortunati watching her go, it breaks the heart.

War comes, and it tears everything to shreds. Sister Luke's hopes of serving God by serving man go unfulfilled as battles ensue. Consistently during her career as a Sister, Luke's obedience has been tested. She does not always stop to pray when the bell tolls, particularly if she is in the middle of helping a patient in need. She becomes too personal and emotionally involved with the men and women she cares for in Africa (right). Now, the world outside is raging, and she is locked away as if the sisters are in hiding when they should be out fighting, helping their fellow man, and trying to piece the broken world back together again. She makes a final act of defiance in allowing a new, young Sister to get out of the convent in order to help some soldiers. It is what she would have done at her age. It is what she wishes that she could do now. Then, word reaches her that her father is dead-- her father, whom despite herself she loves more than the Holy Father. It is the final straw that breaks her world-weary back. 

She makes the fatal decision to leave the convent. Just as when she first entered, many try to stop her and beg her to rethink herself. But her self is just what she is returning to. Her dismissal is a shameful display. She is treated like a woman with the plague, sent to a little room to remove her robes-- revealing the streaks of gray hair around her once young face. She is given her dowry back and her old belongings, and then... she exits. A door almost magically opens, and she walks out, growing smaller and smaller in the camera's view. The moment comes like a wave of relief to the viewer, who has endured her nerves and agony and has longed for this catharsis. Gabrielle, as she is named again, turns and walks away. Where she goes, no one knows, but for the first time in a long time, her path is her choice.

The isolation of the Nuns in Black Narcissus makes them seem hard
and "unholy." They only truly serve God when they come
in contact with the people of the village.

If the three discussed films have any commonality, it is the lesson they preach that there must be a unity of both God and Man. Anything in extreme is dangerous. If indeed there is a God, He created life so that we could live it. He created joy and love so that we could enjoy it, (and overcome all of those dangerous hurdles Satan unlocked when he tempted Eve with that damn apple). When the people of Babel built their tower in the sky, they got too close to God and were sent crashing down. So, the women of these films, while they have ethereal aspirations, cannot totally outgrow their human surroundings, nor should they. The point is not to be divine, but to be alive-- to do service to your fellow man in whatever mode one finds appropriate, whether as a Priest or a civilian. Abandoning your brethren for high ideals is, thus, the greatest sin of all. Celestial faith has a price, but goodness can be found and evil defied on earth. That is the challenge we have inherited and the one we must live with and endure together. All films are wonderful in their own way, but if you only see one, see The Nun's Story. I was shocked by how much I loved and responded to it, and I'm sure you will be too. Peace out.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn during Charade.

If there were two stars who seemed destined to be co-stars-- celebrity soul mates-- it was Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. No other actors or actresses were as synonymous with "style," nor was anyone a better representative of "class" for their sex. Quickly after Audrey's appearance in Hollywood, studios were already scrambling for a project that would contain the killer combo of Grant and Hepburn, yet it would take awhile before that cinematic dream would come true.

Cary was first offered the role of "Linus Larrabee" in Billy Wilder's Sabrina, but he turned the role down, perhaps because he didn't want to go toe to toe with William Holden, who would be playing the "better looking," younger brother, "David." Instead, the plum part went to Humphrey Bogart. The film probably wouldn't have been as unpredictable had Audrey wandered off into Cary's arms at the end. Everyone would have seen that one coming. Bogie's macho attitude and antipathy toward love actually created the proper amount of surprise and transformation needed to add a little depth to the role. Yet, audiences were still longing for the Cary-Audrey pairing, which is why Cary was next offered the role of "Frank Flannagan" in Love in the Afternoon, again to be directed by Billy Wilder. Nay! He turned it down again! He believed himself too old to play Audrey's romantic leading man. So, this time, Gary Cooper would fill the shoes of Audrey's befuddled, elder romancer, which of course, he did quite nicely. Still, Cary's uncanny business sense was correct. Gary, though still handsome and alluring, was a wee bit too old for the part, which resulted in Billy's strategic, shadowed lighting. Also, I don't know if Coop chose to play this role as chronically drunk, or if he really was, but to me it kind of works. He is a hoot in it, and it is unlike any other role he played. It is also nice to see the girl leading the guy in romantic circles for a change, which is why this is one of my favorite Hepburn roles. (The duo do their famous goodbye/hello at the film's end, left).

Finally, 6 years after the last offer, Cary and Audrey would come together at long last in Charade. Yet, even this gem was almost missed! Cary was still reticent about playing a creepy old man-- ironic, considering that he is the only man in the universe would could pull off that courtship and still seem so very Cary. So, while he kicked the idea around, the film was considered as a vehicle for Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. Eek. I love both of the latter performers, but the film needed a classic vibe to work, and the fresh faces of Warren and Natalie would've been the wrong ingredients. Paul Newman was also considered for the lead, but his rate was too high. So, Cary came up with a compromise. He would take on the part, if the script were changed so that Audrey would be chasing him, and not the other way around. Agreed! Despite an unfortunate first meeting, in which a humiliated Audrey spilled wine all over Cary's perfectly tailored suit-- no worries, he sent her flowers the next day-- the two got on swimmingly. Thus, we are left with one of the funniest crime-spoof-capers in film history. (Audrey administers some TLC to Cary's Peter Joshua/Carson Dyle/Whatever his name is).

The chemistry between Audrey and Cary was just as wonderful as anyone could have dreamed. Clearly, Cary was kicking himself for not working with Audrey sooner, because as soon as production ended, and he was asked what his next goal was, he answered that he wanted to "make another movie with Audrey Hepburn!" He tried to get her for Father Goose, in fact, but Audrey was more interested in obtaining the lead in My Fair Lady. The role of "Catherine," therefore, went to Audrey's equally stunning pal, Leslie Caron (left). "Grantburn," as we'll call them, was sadly never to work together again, although there was one last chance: Cary was offered the role of "Henry Higgins" in My Fair Lady!!! However, Cary refused the role, saying that it belonged to Rex Harrison, who had brought it to life on stage. So certain was he that Rex deserved the part, that he told George Cukor that he would not even go to see the movie if he cast anyone else! Still, Rock Hudson, Peter O'Toole, and Laurence Olivier were all considered before Rex won that argument! Rock Hudson as Henry Higgins?!?!?! 

Back to Audrey: The Children's Hour remains a fascinating piece of filmmaking. Risque in its day, William Wyler explored themes of homosexuality in ways that few directors had yet been bold enough to attempt. Indeed, he had made the film before in 1936 with Merle Oberon in the role of "Karen," Miriam Hopkins in the role of "Martha," and Joel McCrea as "Joseph," (the role that would later belong to James Garner). Titled These Three, the film was unfortunately subjected to censorship restraints, meaning that all hints of lesbianism were erased from the plot, unceremoniously turning it into the typical, love triangle film. Nonetheless, perhaps hoping to give the former actresses a glorious piece of the later 1961 version, Wyler asked them to take on the roles of "Mrs. Lily Mortar" and "Mrs. Amelia Tilford." Only Miriam agreed  to sign on as Aunt Lily, performing at her usual, hysterical best. (It was perhaps fortuitous that Merle didn't sign on, since she and Audrey would, in time, share the love of their lives in Robert Wolders).

Shirley MacLaine rocks your world!

Audrey almost didn't get a chance to be in The Children's Hour, since one of the original pitches was to have Doris Day and Katharine Hepburn in the two leads. Now, I love me some Doris and Kate, but imagining the film without the deeply tortured and heartbreaking performance of Shirley MacLaine is unthinkable (see left)! Audrey too proved to be the perfect counterpoint to Shirley's highly nervous Martha, giving her own portrayal of Karen a believable blend of cool intelligence and wounded naivete. Both are lost souls in their own way whose lives are torn assunder by an outrageous lie that proves to be half true. A good movie makes you feel, a great one makes you think, a perfect one does both. As with most Audrey films, this one safely falls into the perfect category.

Friday, February 1, 2013

STAR OF THE MONTH: Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Kathleen Van Heemstra Ruston

The Audrey Hepburn effect became pretty clear to me over the past month. In preparation for all of my monthly muses, in addition to reading everything I can about the individual in so brief a time, I like to watch as many of their available films as possible. A strange phenomenon: not only did I find that I already had the majority of Audrey's major Hollywood films in my possession, but I was also privileged with enduring the most enjoyable movie marathon in my recollection. Every movie made me feel good. Every movie left me in a better mood. Most importantly, I was excited to revisit each film, whereas sometimes I have to drag my feet (due to the impending, heavy subject matter, etc). Not this time. Thus, I give you the Audrey Hepburn effect: Joy!

Audrey seems so... pristine in cinematic history-- so beautiful, so charismatic, and so notoriously generous. Her sense of style via her BFFs Givenchy and Ralph Lauren makes even Grace Kelly in retrospect look like an amateur. Her films are almost all classics, and they continue to be lauded as some of the top fan favorites in film history. Imagining movies-- nay, the world!-- without Audrey, today seems unfathomable. She is an icon: a frail, delicate, untouchable goddess. It is easy to slip her into the Heavenly attic of Hollywood's stars and forget that she came up the hard way. Today, Audrey and "Beauty" are synonymous; yet, there was no place in the ever-short-sighted L.A. for a skinny, gawky, too tall girl with no real acting experience. The fact that Audrey Hepburn triumphed and won hearts simply by being herself is a testament both to her and to us. When this diamond emerged from the rough, we saw in her a beauty that existed outside of the general standard and was superior to all preconceived notions. Audrey was both authentic and ethereal. Our trust in her was quickly earned, and in a comparatively short career in film, she never let us down.

Audrey takes the stage as "Gigi." Famed and infamous
authoress Collette handpicked Audrey when she
saw her randomly in a hotel lobby!

Yet, she had every reason to. Audrey's childhood was far from "lov-e-ly," despite the fact that she was born into nobility. Her mother, Ella van Heemstra, was a "baroness" with unfulilled dreams of the stage, and her father was the wayfaring "businessman" Joseph Hepburn-Ruston. The marriage was an affair of passion over propriety on the lady's part. Ella would pass on her daring nature to her third child. Audrey was the happy, youngest, and only daughter, born after two half-brothers, Alexander and Ian, from her mother's previous marriage to Hendrik Gustaaf Adolf Quarles van Ufford, (phew), which had ended in divorce.  War was brewing, and Audrey's father was surprisingly on the side of the Nazis, a fact that caused Audrey much later chagrin. Even her mother showed an early, ignorant support of the fascist movement, one that she later revised after her husband abandoned her and she witnessed first-hand the evil of the Axis powers. Growing up primarily in the Dutch town of Arnhem during its German occupation, Audrey was confronted with hunger, depravity, and fear. Her father's absence and her mother's detached sense of affection, which revealed itself in discipline, only exacerbated Audrey's shyness and insecurity. Yet, her answer to these threats, always, was to remain brave-- to literally keep dancing while the world tried to break her. 

Indeed, she dreamed of being a ballerina, and she would put on private shows for neighbors-- who out of fear of making noise, couldn't even applaud for her but merely smiled in reverence after she made her curtsy. Audrey also showed signs of the early rebel, daringly hiding soldiers with her mother and carrying messages for the resistance in her shoes-- a courageous act many of her young peers participated in. With her innocent face, she was the perfect secret agent, though she was almost accidentally rounded up once with a slew of other girls to work in the German military kitchen. She waited for the right moment and made a break for it. The other girls weren't as lucky, nor as bold. Finally, the end of the madness, and the liberation of Holland, came on her sixteenth birthday: May 4, 1945. Audrey celebrated by getting sick by gorging on chocolate, the first she'd tasted in some time. However, her bouts with illness during the war-- including anemia, severe edema, jaundice, and asthma-- would forever affect her metabolism, as well as her psyche. She would never forget the horrors and cruelties she saw. Her most brilliant act of defiance was in not letting the memories cripple her. Instead, she approached life with beauty, grace, and dignity, which served as her sword, helmet, and shield through all the trials she had yet to endure.

Audrey's sense of fun and youthful wonder mixed with
her emotional maturity won her an Academy Award
in Roman Holiday and a lifetime friend
in Gregory Peck.

How did this little, twirling violet find herself in Hollywood? The trek was unlikely and a bit unwanted when it came. As Audrey matured, it became unfortunately clearer and clearer to her that ballet was not her calling. She was a capable dancer, but what she possessed in poise and charisma-- two things she had in abundance-- she lacked in skill and control. Anyone who observed her dancing performances, her work in "High Button Shoes," or the cabaret show at Ciro's in London, was captivated by her-- particularly with her eyes. She had a "quality." She was "bound to be famous." Many over the years would take credit for discovering her, and perhaps it's true that many did. Audrey was the only one who seemed surprised by her public reception. Always a practical and hard-working woman, she eventually got work modeling and taking some minor roles in mostly British films. Word of mouth and just plain luck earned Audrey a chance at the leading role in Anita Loos's stage adaptation of "Gigi" and a screen test for William Wyler's Roman Holiday. She nabbed them both! Suddenly, Audrey was the toast of the entertainment world: an inexperienced actress with a practically non-existent resume was to star on Broadway and in a major motion picture!? With Gregory Peck?! It all made sense when the world caught a glimpse of her. In "Gigi," Audrey's acting was at best mildly praised and at worst dismissed, but her being was extolled. She was just... adorable! And lovable. And real. These qualities would carry over into her first screen performance, where Greg Peck even gentlemanly acquiesced to sharing top billing with her, because he was so impressed. Audrey's rule was simple: not to "act," but to "feel." She would repeatedly admit throughout her career that she had no technique; that she relied entirely on her directors and co-stars to guide her. Her humility only made her more enchanting, and the honesty with which she approached her work made her an immediate sensation.

The Hepburn quality is a mixture of innocence and maturity; girlishness and strength. Skinny as a rail, she may have been. Still, no one got the impression, with her defiant, square-line jaw, that Audrey could be pushed around. But then, with her vulnerable features and ultimate kindness, no one wanted to. The same enchantment that she used to capture the loyalty of her directors and co-stars (she had Billy Wilder and William Wyler transfixed and notorious scalawags like Peter O'Toole and William Holden eating out of her hand) was the same that endeared a universal audience to her. In Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, and Love in the Afternoon, we witness her in her ingenue supremacy. The little girl, a bit romantic but always intelligent, falls in love with an older male. Modern feminists could argue the issues all day, but in the end, it is never Audrey who is conquered. Her wit and depth, albeit in a younger, more seemingly impressionable package, always triumph over the uber-masculine, jaded, and philandering ways of Bogart, Astaire, and Cooper. As such, she is a girl who is allowed to fall in love, because she does so, not only genuinely, but with class. She may have given up the study of "empathicalism" to become a model in Funny Face, but the point is not that she looked beautiful doing it-- that she went through the Cinderella process at the cost of her brain-- but that she used both her beauty and brains to bring Fred Astaire through his own emotional Cinderella process, so that he would be man enough to meet her.

When Audrey looked in the mirror, she always saw a Funny Face
the world saw the epitome of gorgeousness.

Always, Audrey was proactive in her career, choosing roles that spoke to her and that held some level of decorum that preached her belief that beauty gives birth to beauty. She had seen enough violence in her life and had endured enough trauma. In her projects, there was always the resounding mantra of "let there be light," even if her characters had to sometimes face the harder aspects of humanity to find it. Yet, as the girl became a woman, so too did she seek out more mature roles. With the help of her first husband, Mel Ferrer--whose instincts for her career were as keen as his instincts toward his own were askew-- she more often than not was able to choose projects that ended as box-office hits, but then that was, again, probably just the Audrey Hepburn effect. The studios were enthusiastically shocked when The Nun's Story was a smash success, and indeed this film was a milestone in Audrey's acting career as well. Here, not only do we watch her acting reach new heights, but we watch the little girl we knew enter into a life of servitude (with conviction and courage), and exit it as a mature, worldly woman. It was the perfect beginning to a new chapter in her film work. I personally find her later movies more compelling, although admittedly her earlier, ingenue films are the height of Hollywood romanticism. Once she outgrew the role of "the new girl," or the "hot young thing," Audrey was able to use her clout to take on more daring projects that pushed the envelope of human understanding-- such as The Children's Hour-- or our very sense of cultural comfort...

Breakfast at Tiffany's: where glamour and bohemia meet.

Oh, Breakfast at Tiffany's... Is there anyone alive who does not get misty when they hear the opening, melancholy notes of "Moon River?" (Heck, I'm tearing up right now)! Notoriously, Truman Capote would be aghast at the fact that Audrey was cast as his free-wheeling, little-girl-lost prostitute, "Holly Golightly." (He had hoped for Marilyn Monroe, see here). Many were inclined to agree with him. Audrey a call-girl??? Errr...  As a result, Blake Edwards's take on the novella was not as gritty nor as realistic, though brimming with life and humor, as Capote's charmed tale, but in retrospect, the end may just have justified the means. In a nation undergoing an incredible cultural shift-- from old school, to new school; from boundaries and glamour to "swingers," desegregation, and Vietnam-- our transformation into a new world, a more open, yet for many, peculiar world, needed a trusting face to guide us there. So, the last link of Golden Era Hollywood would wear the slim black dress of a society girl, have premarital sex, throw drunken parties, and still find a way to make it appear palatable. And also: Tiffany's? There's only one woman that could carry that banner. Audrey and style are forever intertwined. Despite some critical disapproval, Audrey's ever-running, ever-searching Holly is authentic unto herself. There was so much of that Holly in Audrey, that the performance is actually quite breath-taking and far above commendation.

Alan Arkin terrorizes Audrey in Wait Until Dark.

From this point on, Audrey would play Women and continue her position as an unexpected feminist role model. Another surprisingly controversial piece of work, My Fair Lady, was a grueling and emotionally draining experience to make, mostly because of the constant insults hurled Audrey's way for her lip-syncing. (Not her fault, by the way. She tried to sing her own songs, but Audrey's singing, much like her dancing, was never on par with her thespian abilities). Still, her "Eliza Doolittle," while funny in her cockney period, was most astonishing in her post-transformation. When her heart breaks over the uncertainty of her future, a woman in-between and without a home, the audience is with her and too cheers for her when she puts Rex Harrison's "Henry Higgins" in his place. Two for the Road introduced audiences to a more realistic, less-sugary portrait of marriage, and ironically helped to end Audrey's own, as she and co-star Albert Finney engaged in a passionate affair during filming. The entire blame was not on Audrey, mind you. Mel had been enjoying numerous, alleged dalliances prior to this for some time, and it was argued just how serviceable or controlling his interest in her career had become. He would produce Wait Until Dark-- a still undated, suspenseful masterpiece, thanks to Audrey's performance as a helpless, blind woman who uses her wits to escape disaster-- then the couple would divorce.

Audrey's career in film was all but over at this point, but then Hollywood was never truly her home. She admired the art but defied the pretension, finding solace in her home in Switzerland where she could enjoy more peace and privacy. After suffering numerous miscarriages, she would eventually have two sons, the first by Mel-- Sean Ferrer-- and the second by second husband, psychiatrist Andrea Dotti-- Luca Dotti. As she had been a career woman since her late teens, Audrey decided to devote the remainder of her life to being a wife and mother, making films only sporadically. Many hail Robin and Marian as her last, great classic, and I'm inclined to agree. (The chemistry between herself and the Scots' answer to masculinity, Sean Connery, is still mesmerizing). Sadly, while Audrey, guilty over the dissolution of her first union, was determined to make her second marriage work, she and Andrea Dotti were divorced after his very public liaisons became too much for her to endure. (You cheated on Audrey Hepburn? HONESTLY)!? Yet, she would find her soulmate after long last in the widower of Merle Oberon, the 7 years younger Robert Wolders. They would remain together for 12 years, most of which were encompassed by Audrey's dedicated work for UNICEF. Because of her own desperate struggles as a child, children in pain were always her weak-spot, and she charitably and exhaustingly gave herself to this cause, despite the emotional toll it took on her. Watching the deaths of innocents by the hundreds in places like Ethiopia, Turkey, and Somalia, was no easy feat.

Gorge on the gorgeousness.

Audrey Hepburn died at the age of 63, mere weeks after her rare and painful bout with cancer was even diagnosed-- the malignant tumor that had started in her appendix had already spread by the time Audrey had registered the discomfort, resulting in a hysterectomy and the partial removal of her colon. She opted not to undergo chemotherapy and left this earth as peaceably as she had lived within it. She was surrounded by loved ones as she took her last breath and was subsequently missed by all whose lives she had touched, many of whom knew her only from her presence on the silver screen. She would be held up over time as an angel-- an inhumanly beautiful woman inside and out. But Audrey was not an angel. She was, despite her slender figure, of hearty stock and a complicated, deeply emotional, acutely intelligent woman, whose generous contribution to society was her lightness of spirit. Have you ever laughed harder than at the dialogue she shares with Cary Grant in Charade? Have you ever watched Sabrina and not audibly sighed? War and Peace is one of her least known films-- and lesser praised as well (for good reason, I must say)-- but it eloquently ends with the words of Tolstoy: "The most difficult thing-- but an essential one-- is to love Life, even while one suffers, because Life is all." It may as well have been her epitaph. Few have come closer than she, perhaps, to living that very example.