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Thursday, July 10, 2014


Ava Gardner

Ava Gardner's beauty was insane. INSANE. Labeled "the Love Goddess" by the Hollywood publicity machine, the title was both an accurate description of the sensual feelings she inspired (merely by purring) and an equal misnomer, considering the reality of her romantic life. Ava was far from the dynamic seductress she would become as a Hollywood star. Growing up an impoverished tomboy in North Carolina, she became a surprise beauty queen when a talent scout spotted her picture in her brother-in-law's shop window. What followed was an uncomfortable for her, yet extraordinary for us, ascent as one of the most beautiful women in cinematic history.

However, Ava was far more than her luscious extremities. A down-to-earth, unpretentious, accidental femme fatale, her persona would be turned upside down through her progression in Hollywood from a shy kid from the sticks to the ultimate tiger woman. Unschooled in acting, she would have preferred to be a singer, which explained her brief love affair and infatuation with Artie Shaw. However, her abilities on the screen were more than enough to garner public affection. To say she was charismatic is the understatement of the millennium. Ava was fierce. In contrast to Marilyn Monroe, for example, she was not as openly vulnerable. The sharp features of her face as accompanied by her full mouth were intense, alluring, and unforgiving in a predatory sense. When paired with her sultry voice, the effect was devastating. She wasn't a sex-object so much as a a dominatrix. Women admired her intensity and related to the broken woman hiding underneath her veneer. Men... they just wanted to be destroyed by her. 

As many of the scout-found talents of her era, one can literally watch Ava's abilities grow on film. The awkward and uncertain girl (who married Mickey Rooney) artfully evolved into a courageous and dangerous actress. To see her blink-and-you'll-miss-it-featured roll in Calling Dr. Gillespie, to her poetically aggressive presentation in One Touch of Venus, and her comfortable, sexual masterdom in Mogambo is a fascinating experience in itself. By the time she appeared in Stanley Kramer's On the Beach, she was a seasoned veteran, through with pretense and totally embracing the raw, rough and tumble aspects of her true nature. Ava had little use for BS. The older she got, the more she was able to shirk the accepted affectations and just be the edgy, emotionally abandoned, and even frightened woman she was underneath. Few actresses had such courage.

Her personal life was less savory. She suffered a slew of broken hearts, most notoriously from her intense marriage to Frank Sinatra, a soul mate that would never fully recover from her nor she from him. Unrepentant for the woman whom she developed into, Ava left the world of Hollywood behind for the most part in her later years, moving to her beloved Spain and dancing "barefoot," as was her way. As she aged, her iconic beauty remained but was faded by harsh years, hard knocks, and alcoholism. The real Ava, who was built into a star, got lost somewhere in the Hollywood machinery and spent the majority of her life trying to find herself again.

Still, the love Goddess remains, and on this day, the day of Lovers, it seems appropriate to honor her and the impassioned, unarguable, unbreakable imprint she left behind. An accidental pioneer in the world of feminism, her example of confidence, a healthy sexuality, and chronic defiance still coaches the women of the world on their own quest for pride in identity. And the dudes still dig her too.


Ann Dvorak

Ann Dvorak didn't have time for bull sh*t. A gifted and daring actress who graced the screen-- large and small-- from the late 'teens to the early fifties, she was too much of a free agent to be reined in by studio stipulation, general opinion, or flat out nonsense. A child of divorce, she learned self-resilience early, and her exploratory heart and avaricious curiosity compelled her to thrust the tough but elegant woman she was into the artistic realm where her passion could rule. She luckily brought along her common sense.

She had an early start, growing up on film sets, but it would be in the thirties that she had her big break. After serving as a dance instructor, her gal pal Joan Crawford introduced her to Howard Hughes who soon cast her in Scarface as Cesca-- the sister whom Paul Muni's gangster has quite obvious, incestuous feeling for. Unabashed at such controversial subject matter, she became one of the go-to girls during the sultry pre-code days, her other most popular piece being Three on a Match in which she portrayed a fallen woman, drug addicted mother, and eventual suicide victim. Pretty heavy.

However, almost as soon as her career started taking off, she ran into trouble with studios, mostly because she had a habit for ignoring contracts or all out defying them. Her life belonged to herself and no one else, which was an outlook the grinding Hollywood machine did not take to kindly. She ran off to get married, was suspended, then brazenly combated her low salary rate as well as the poor quality of her films and roles. The result was an eventual and tedious escape from her contract to freelance. She would never become as big a star as some of her contemporaries because of this. She quite simply didn't like to play games. She preferred to increase the lexicon of her ever-growing library and expand her mind and horizons instead of her celebrity.

She spent the last nearly thirty years of her life off screen and away from the public eye, most probably enjoying the fact that she was actually living life instead of merely pretending to live someone else's. Unlike many others, she merely hovered around Hollywood instead of allowing her soul to be immersed in it and therefore stolen. She had her own plans and left us with exactly what she was willing to give and nothing more. This isn't the best news for us, because her remaining work makes one want to see more, but you have to respect a woman with boundaries.


Alan Hale

Alan Hale, Sr. (not to be confused with his son, the Skipper of "Gilligan's Island") was a very unique personality in both silent and studio era cinema. A big lug, generally mustached, he would become familiar with audiences by portraying the befuddled man's man with a loud, raucous laugh, clumsy yet aggressive physicality, and his very expressive eyes-- usually twinkling. Appearing in nearly 250 films (that we know of) in a less the 40-year career, his energy, comic skill, and integral depth allowed him to easily traverse multiple genres and play the bad guy, the good guy, the drunk guy, the oaf, the clown, the tough, and most often, the best friend.

Alan's big voice encouraged him to pursue a career in the opera, which makes it interesting that he found a home for himself in silent cinema. However, the creativity and curiosity of his ever-spinning mind-- which led him to an initial career as an inventor (of foldable theater seats among others)-- also instilled within him a natural penchant for unique characterizations. For a man constantly tinkering with objects to see how they worked, cracking a fictional character open and making it tick was an easily adapted talent. His hammy, fun-loving personality only bolstered his appeal, giving him an unlikely charisma onscreen, which made him one of the most popular and beloved character actors of his generation.

 While as a fresh-faced 20-year-old he was able to land the lead in several pictures, it was his uncanny knack at supporting parts, those that added flavor and drove the plot of the story, which would provide for him a comfy position on the Warner Brothers roster. As such, he moved from a series of short film appearances to playing opposite  Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, Lon Chaney in The Trap, and Douglas Fairbanks in the epic Robin Hood. His role in the latter was that of Little John, one that he would repeat sixteen years later opposite his good friend Errol Flynn in the 1938 version, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

In fact, it is with Errol that Alan is most associated, as these hard-living, boisterous boys in cahoots got along swimmingly both on and off screen. They appeared in several features together, including The Prince and the Pauper, Dodge City, and The Sea Hawk. Alan's success at WB after the talkie revolution is beyond impressive. He was an uncouth buffoon in Stella Dallas, the notoriously flagged down driver (or should I say "legged") in It Happened One Night, and the ne'er-do-well married lover of Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage. He appeared in Great Expectations, Imitation of Life, They Drive By Night, Algiers, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Strawberry Blonde, etc, etc, etc, always lending the lead players his support and improving their performances with his own reliable and inspirational characterizations. One might even say that he was a bit of a scene stealer. He created a natural effect in his scenes, locking them in reality and adding nuance and complication to even the most saccharine or melodramatic plots. 

Alan passed away at the age of 57 far too soon. His talents could have easily translated to television had he more time to continue his thespian explorations. However, problems with his liver and a viral infection led to his untimely, premature passing, leaving behind his wife of 35 years and 3 children-- including his equally famous, doppleganger son Alan Hale, Jr. Less recognized than his contemporaries for his contribution to the cinematic arts, his presence in retrospect seems so fundamental to the success of so many classic films that is hard to imagine Hollywood history without him. When he appeared on screen, audiences knew a little something extra was coming their way. That 'something' was usually just having a more thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable night at the movies. At the very least, it meant life was about to get interesting.


Alan Arkin

Alan Arkin is a weirdo. This is precisely why he is awesome. Falling into the same category as our other beloved eccentrics-- Walken, Hopper, Lynch-- Alan can sell a line, a scene, or a story simply because he is interesting to watch. What he does is consistently, disturbingly familiar and yet wholly unexpected. He's the oddball next door; the dirty uncle you invite to reunions, specifically because you want to see what he'll say next. Yet, underneath it all, is the obscene bravery that comes with such reckless abandon. It's not every performer who can so unashamedly manifest in every role, giving the impression that he or she doesn't give a rat's ass. It's almost inhuman. This aspect of his character, the notion that he is from another planet, or at the very least operating on a whole other level, is what makes every nuance of his work so goddamned fascinating.

Alan has been working in film and television for nearly 60 years, and the older he gets, the more frequent his appearances have become. As an unlikely hero, he found his happy home in supporting or character roles, which have become more plentiful with age. Hardly the Hollywood heartthrob, Arkin's early appearances and work were much more striking and even uncomfortable than that of the average leading man. Intermingled with his wonderfully bizarre yet dangerous articulation, there was always humor. He still carries the same aura, one akin to someone like Bill Murray, where the underlying message seems to be: this is some effed up, cockamamie bull sh*t, eh?. The world is hilarious, a horror worth laughing at, because in the end, it's all a ruse anyway. People take it-- life, celebrity, performance-- too seriously. In summation, Alan takes the high, low road: "Argo f*ck yourself."

Arkin's first break was in the fitting, darkly comic wartime satire The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), but it was Wait Until Dark (1967) that really earned him notice. A surprise hit, the unlikely pairing of the most elegant of actresses (Audrey Hepburn) with the new, maniacal maestro on the block created a psychologically tormenting and tension-fueled film as creepy as it was flawless. Naturally, much of this had to do with Alan's performance as the soulless aforementioned 'creep' whose eyes were eerily camouflaged by dark glasses-- almost like a premonition of a Satantic Morpheus. However, he was not always so diabolical. His unexpected and tender work in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968) and his unhinged, broken rebel in Catch-22 (1970) further proved his versatility and kept him working steadily over the next 4 decades, (including a run on "Sesame Street").

Today, he is still making an impact on a new generation of movie goers who recognize him as the aging salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), the inappropriate grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and the entertainingly cantankerous producer in Argo (2012). Peppering his resume with cameos (So I Married an Axe Murderer), hits (Gattaca), and misses (The Santa Clause 3?), he keeps doing as he does the way only he can do it. Strangely. Very strangely. Hey, the world needs it.

THE REEL REALS: Joan Blondell

Joan Blondell

Joan Blondell wasn't your average movie starlet, for the plain and simple reason that she always presented herself as totally average woman-- albeit with a slightly above-average figure. Joan didn't exude pretension nor indulge in any self-important celebrity posturing, yet she gelled with Hollywood like a breath of fresh air. Her natural attitude easily fit any character or story she was given, because she was "easy"-- easy to get along with, easy to love, no muss, no fuss, and most importantly, easy to trust, even if her character was flirting with you purely so she could steal your wallet.

She wasn't glamorous nor hoity-toity. She was an earthy straight-shooter. She was "all woman," and she didn't apologize for it, yet she held her own against the cast of men-- on the screen and off-- who crossed her path, pounding her chest. It turned her on but not on her ear. Her onscreen characterizations showcased a woman with incredible street savvy and sharp common sense. She may not have thought much of herself or the world in general-- her girls were always cynical-- but she seemed to accept the flaws in life, take its lumps, and even have some fun. She was a realist who didn't fear reality but instead rolled her eyes at it and, in doing so, ably played the role of the sarcastic best friend to a world of very grateful, often jaded moviegoers.

As is generally the case, this defiant, outward zest did not totally mirror the inner woman. She housed many private pains and heartbreaks along the road of life. Joan grew up quickly, getting an early start in vaudeville by the age of three and working steadily thereafter. As such, her performances, while not overly hammy, belonged to the school of stage craft and not screen etiquette, which perhaps held her back from being a bona fide movie star. Relegated to supporting, wisecracking, and working girl roles, she was the gal who gave a story a little edge, a little humor, and generally kept things grounded when they started drifting into melodrama. 

Joan with Barbara Stanwyck and an unnamed skeleton in Night Nurse.

This aura is projected is partly the result of her early introduction into the world of work and also tragedy. She was raped by a police officer in her late teens, which infused if not wholly tarnished her impression of men and the dangers of the world. There was no fooling her after that. Starry eyed, she was not. However, while she was tough, she was not cruel. She was fun-loving, but not gullible; shrewd but warm. Her smart-mouthed movie dames learned from and triumphed over her private lessons, and while they didn't win out in the lottery of life, they generally enjoyed it more.

Not as popular as many of her contemporaries, Joan's career remains impressive. From her early stage work opposite James Cagney, which brought her to Hollywood, to her cameo in Grease as one of the waitresses at the popular diner the T-Birds and Pink Ladies' patronized-- remember the beauty school drop out number?-- she has appeared in  over 150 films and television shows/specials, earning a little more credit in her later years due to impressive performances in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and an Academy Award nomination for The Blue Veil. Some of her best contributions remain: The Public Enemy, Night Nurse, Blonde Crazy, Three on a Match, Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames, Topper Returns, Cry 'Havoc' and Desk Set. 

Always entertaining and sturdy in a world that is full of chaos, she made life easier on her fans simply by brushing off the absurdity and sauntering off to the beat of her own drummer. She made survival look easy, which is probably why so many of the films she participated in have indeed survived the passage of time. It's refreshing, every once and awhile, to encounter someone who gives it to you straight.