Archive for Ava Gardner

Forbidden Divas: The Naked Maja

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2017 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another despatch from the far shores of divadom ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Painting by Numbers

“I leave to you the two things I love most – yourself and Spain!”

~ Ava Gardner on her deathbed, The Naked Maja

As Hollywood rumour has it, the formidable MGM boss Louis B Mayer saw the very first screen test by the young movie hopeful Ava Gardner and cried out: “She can’t act! She can’t talk! She’s sensational!” Only her most ardent fans would ever dispute his verdict. The daughter of a dirt-poor sharecropper from rural North Carolina, the young Lucy Johnson (her real name) had little if any formal training as an actress. Nor, in the 40-year movie career that followed, did she ever seem to feel the lack of it. Her beauty was so lush – and her presence so regal and radiant – that Ava Gardner managed to leap-frog the petty confines of mere Drama and landed directly and squarely in the magic circle of Myth.

She did, in fairness, produce a number of more-than-watchable performances. A gypsy dancer turned movie queen in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), an anguished Anglo-Indian half-caste in Bhowani Junction (1956), a blowsy and booze-soaked Earth Mother in The Night of the Iguana (1964). It was unclear, in each case, just how much of her work was conscious ‘acting’ and how much was drawn from aspects of her own life. But in order to truly appreciate her special magic, we need to see Ava Gardner in one of those films where she barely acts at all. A lavish but lumbering biopic of the 18th century Spanish painter Francisco de Goya – with Gardner as his aristocratic muse the Duchess of Alba – The Naked Maja (1958) is one of those star vehicles whose raison d’être begins and ends with its star. It is about literally nothing more than the ability of Ava Gardner to embody (and eclipse) one of the most iconic portraits in the history of art.

For any discerning viewer, that is more than enough. In the utterly dispensable role of the painter himself, the Method-trained thespian Anthony Franciosa acts up a storm. Yet his performance verges on the unwatchable. One of those actors who emote always at the highest level of intensity, Franciosa finds himself – almost before he can put brush to canvas – with literally no place left to go. (His off-screen marriage to Shelley Winters must have been the daily equivalent of the Act Two murder scene from Tosca.) In contrast, Ava Gardner seems to do little more than show up and learn her lines. Given the quality of the dialogue, even that is open to debate. Yet Gardner is utterly ravishing and riveting. We truly believe she is the most infamous and desirable woman in Spain – that kingdoms may topple and empires may fall at her slightest whim. Rarely has the alleged link between ‘acting’ and the movies seemed less significant or more tenuous than it does here.

Given the lack of an attractive or even an adequate leading man, this on-screen Duchess of Alba forms a passionate and all-consuming liaison with her wardrobe. There are moments in The Naked Maja where the sheer splendour of the star and her outfits is enough to make us stop and gasp for breath. The Duchess, in a hat adorned by plumes of poisonous green and iridescent mauve, shows up to mock poor Goya when he sells out and becomes a painter to the royal court. The Duchess, in a gown of white tulle and a glistening silver-grey cloak, pauses midway up a staircase of white marble. (She is fleeing, but without any undue haste, from the clutches of the Inquisition.) The Duchess, in a black flamenco dress with a blood-red sash and a spray of blood-red roses in her hair, forsakes the man she loves and goes back to an old admirer (Massimo Serato) because that is the one way she can save Goya’s life. None of this has anything much to do with acting; it is modelling raised to the level of a High Art. You might, of course, say the same for Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress (1934) or The Devil Is a Woman (1935). Yet Marlene had the great Sternberg to mould and inspire her; Ava is doing it entirely off her own back.

The director of The Naked Maja was Henry Koster, a capable hack who specialised in ‘uplifting’ family entertainments like The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and Good Morning, Miss Dove (1955). He also directed the first-ever film in Cinemascope (not to mention one of the dullest) the ponderous pseudo-Biblical epic The Robe (1953). His use of the widescreen format had improved dramatically by the time of Maja – meaning he had worked out how to do something other than stand half a dozen actors side by side, shoulder to shoulder, across the screen. More credit should go, perhaps, to the Italian cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno – who actually does make every frame glow like a Goya canvas. The Naked Maja was shot in Rome as a US-Italian production with Titanus. Not that Rome looks any more like Madrid than Hollywood does, but it was presumably a lot cheaper.

Naturally, the supporting cast includes a roster of well-known Italian actors. Gino Cervi plays the Bourbon King of Spain as a portly but amiable dullard. Lea Padovani plays his Queen (the Duchess of Alba’s bitter rival) as a vindictive, sharp-faced shrew. The villain of the piece is the former Fascist poster boy Amedeo Nazzari, a star in such bellicose epics as Bengasi (1942) and Luciano Serra, Pilot (1938).  Here he plays the evil Prime Minister Godoy, who schemes to hand Spain over to the invading armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. Nazzari keeps a creditably straight face for lines like: “Camp life is not very gay. There is nothing but men in the army!” One can only assume the double meanings got lost in Italian. In fairness, all these actors might be a great deal worse than they are. It would not matter, in any case, as we would only ever be looking at Ava Gardner.

History suggests that the real-life Duchess of Alba was a complicated and enigmatic woman – a revolutionary liberal and patroness of the arts, who read Voltaire and Rousseau and enjoyed an unfettered sex life with men of all classes. Her death by poisoning is a mystery historians have yet to solve. A pair of vastly superior films – Goyescas (1942) with Imperio Argentina and Volaverunt (1999) with Aitana Sanchez-Gijón – have imbued her story with some of the complexity and sophistication it deserves. Yet when it comes to sheer iconic power, The Naked Maja wins out every time. We can believe that Ava Gardner might inspire a man to paint a work of Great Art. But we also have to wonder. What work of Great Art, if any, could ever hope to compete?

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: All That Glitters

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2017 by dcairns

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David Melville (Wingrove) returns to our pages for the first of, hopefully, many posts this year ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

All That Glitters

In 1975, the veteran Hollywood director George Cukor flew to St Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was then called) to start work on the first-ever coproduction between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. The Blue Bird (1976) was planned as a star-studded musical epic, adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck’s classic Symbolist fantasy of 1908. The cast included a roster of Hollywood legends (Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Ava Gardner) as well as star performers from the Bolshoi Ballet. The aim was to usher in a bold new era of bilateral cooperation and cinematic détente. As he toured the Lenfilm studio, Cukor said how proud he was to be filming on the same spot where Sergei Eisenstein had shot The Battleship Potemkin in 1925. “Indeed, Mr. Cukor,” his interpreter replied, “and with the same equipment too!”

From that moment, The Blue Bird was set to be one of the most fabled fiascos in the history of world cinema. The schedule overran, the budget overflowed, the Soviet and Western crews fell out and Elizabeth Taylor shut the whole production down for two weeks – as she suffered one of her legendary illnesses and flew to London for treatment in a private clinic. On its premiere, The Blue Bird was slated by critics and shunned by the public. Shunned, at least, in the relatively few places where the public had a chance to see it. In fact, it was barely released in the UK and most other Western countries. Its reception worldwide was less a liberal 70s vision of détente than a Reagan 80s wet dream of Mutual Assured Destruction. In its own glitzy way, The Blue Bird helped to usher in a new and very nasty era in world politics.

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But forty years later – now that the nuclear fall-out has settled – perhaps it is time to sit down and watch the film itself. To the amazement of anyone who knows their film history, The Blue Bird is a delight. Less a conventional musical than a balletic fantasy in the style of late Michael Powell – Tales of Hoffman (1951), Oh… Rosalinda!! (1955) and Honeymoon (1959) all spring to mind – it stands poised precariously but irresistibly en pointe, in that limbo between High Camp and High Art. Its trio of Hollywood leading ladies – disarmingly but quite wisely, it turns out – make not the slightest effort to act. Instead, they parade about like Pantomime Dames in an array of sumptuous monstrosities designed by the legendary Edith Head. It was written on many a toilet cubicle wall that “Edith Head Gives Good Wardrobe.” I am still unsure how that would translate into Russian.

The story, if there is one, concerns two rather obnoxious children (Todd Lookinland and Patsy Kensit) on a quest of the mystical Blue Bird of Happiness. Given that they live in a remote hut in the depths of the Siberian taiga, one assumes that any place they look will be an improvement. Their guide on their journey is Light, embodied by Elizabeth Taylor in a series of sparkly chiffon gowns that seem to be borrowed from Billie Burke as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Sadly, the role lacks the dramatic complexity of Glinda. It seems to consist of beaming angelically through as many layers of gauze as cameraman Freddie (Doctor Zhivago) Young chose to put over his lens, as well as warbling one or two less-than-memorable songs. Did you know that Liz Taylor could sing? No? Well, that is because she could not.

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Eager to stretch her thespian talents to the full, the enterprising Liz takes on three additional roles. The first is the children’s loving but sharp-tongued Mother, whom she plays a lot like Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) – only with a strictly sanitised vocabulary. Next and by far the liveliest is a terrifying Witch; in truth, Liz is barely recognisable and seems to be having the time of her life. Apart, perhaps, from the day she spent off-screen touring the Imperial Jewellery Collection at the Hermitage Museum. (“They say that if you admire something, the Russians give it to you,” recalled the star. “Well, I admired and admired the Crown Jewels and nothing happened!”) The last role, Maternal Love, is basically Mother with a better dress and more make-up. Indeed, Liz allegedly spent $8000 of her own money on bringing her costumes for The Blue Bird up to scratch.

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Of the magic realms where the children seek the Blue Bird, the most ominous is the Castle of Night. This is presided over by Jane Fonda as Night herself – draped from head to foot in black satin, sporting a cartwheel hat that is the size of a small galaxy. Luckily, she does not sing but is content to purr menacingly, much in the manner of Anita Pallenberg as the Black Queen in Barbarella (1967) – the film that remains, to my mind, Jane’s greatest and most iconic role. (She went on, alas, to win two Oscars. This was proof that her great days of stardom were behind her.) Guiding the children through her castle, she opens multiple doors, behind one of which we glimpse the horrors of War. Cue for a cavalcade of Teutonic Knights, Napoleonic grenadiers, Nazi storm-troopers and all those who have mistakenly attempted to invade Mother Russia. One can only wonder if Cukor and his beleaguered Anglo-American crew took this warning to heart.

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Yet in the trinity of Hollywood divas, the briefest and most satisfying appearance comes from Ava Gardner. Her role is Luxury – an earthy but majestic good-time gal, seated on a white stallion and swathed in vibrant red. She takes an instant shine to the young boy and whisks him off to her palace, where a perpetual orgy is in full swing. Her guests include flamboyantly camp gay men, in suits of lilac and fuchsia silk. (In the dubbed Russian version, do they possibly translate her name as Western Decadence?) Once she gets home, Ava slips into a gown of scarlet and gold swirls, topped off with a spiky jewelled tiara. It bears an eerie resemblance to one of co-star Liz Taylor’s costumes from Boom! (1968). The boy gazes at her in rapt fascination and asks: “Which one of the luxuries are you?” With a splendidly lewd twinkle in her eye, Ava tells him: “That you’ll know once you grow a little bit older.” I take this as proof that he is destined to become a drag queen.

What an actual child might make of The Blue Bird is hard to say. It is by far the most outré piece of ‘family entertainment’ since The Wizard of Oz – but that film has been warping children’s minds for 75 years, until it has assumed the status of a classic. Is it not time we gave The Blue Bird a chance to do the same? It might even be advertised with an appropriate revolutionary slogan: “Camp film buffs of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your taste!”

David Melville

Rogue Male

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on July 15, 2016 by dcairns

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Not the Geoffrey Household novel (highly recommended) which became the Fritz Lang movie MAN HUNT and was later filmed under its own name with Peter O’Toole (more on him in a moment). This Rogue Male, which I found in the Edinburgh Book Fair and snapped up on a whim, is the memoir of Geoffrey Gordon-Creed, a commando in Greece in WWII, leading resistance fighters behind enemy lines and blowing up an important viaduct. It’s a rollicking, amoral yarn and Gordon-Creed is a humorous, ruthless, scurrilous narrator.

There are a couple of movie anecdotes when we get to the author’s post-war life in Africa — one involves a bit of kis-and-tell told by John Loder about Ginger Rogers, which I would feel kind of grubby repeating.

The one about Ava Gardner is just about OK though, I think. Just this week I read about her three-in=a=bed romp with O’Toole (told you) and Richard Burton. The lusty Geoff bedded her shortly after she’d finished shooting MOGAMBO ~

My current love at the time was working on the film so I had occasion to visit her on location once or twice. Everyone on the set adored Ava — in fact the world appeared to be in love with her and some even reckoned her the most beautiful woman on this planet.

Anyhow, once filming was through many of the cast came up to Nairobi for some fun. I happened to be there and met Ava again, and the chemistry was mutual and compelling. She laid it on the line. If I so wished she would be my woman, and only mine, for one week. After that I would never hear from her again, nor would she expect to hear from me. No calls, no whining, no nothing. Finito!

‘You want? No?’

‘I want.’

She was the perfect lover and courtesan. Not another man even existed in the universe while I was in the saddle. I was privileged. In the end I had eight days.

But it did bother me a bit to think that I was related, ‘by injection’ as it were, to that cretin actor Mickey Rooney and that wop Frank Sinatra and certainly scores of others. But enough! She was memorable.