Archive for Forbidden Divas

Forbidden Divas RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2020 by dcairns

Lucia Bosè’s death earlier this year wasn’t much publicised in the UK — David Melville Wingrove discovered it months later, and wrote this beautiful piece. Some more months later, I’m finally publishing it, with apologies.

Imitations of Lives

“There are many ways to commit suicide and still go on living.”

~ Lucia Bosè, Of Love and Other Solitudes

There are stars whose off-screen life is a thing entirely apart from their on-screen image. Then there are stars whose lives on and off the screen seem to intersect in uncannily intimate ways. The Italian (and later Spanish) actress Lucia Bosè was emphatically a star of the second type. In 1967, the whole of Spain was agog at the break-up of her marriage to Luis Miguel Dominguín, the country’s most illustrious matador. Two years later Bosè starred in Of Love and Other Solitudes (1969) – a bleak and anguished drama of marital dysfunction and break-up. This was not so much a case of Art Imitates Life as one of Life or Art, What’s The Difference?

For most of the 50s and 60s, Bosè and Dominguín had been the premier glamour couple of Franco’s Spain. They lived in a palatial villa, had three gorgeous children and their inner circle included Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau and, more ominously, the dictator General Franco himself. “I can’t say anything bad about Franco,” Bosè remarked years later. “To me he was just a normal man. But my husband was more franquista than Franco, in any case.” It is comments like that which reveal the marriage was not a happy one. There can be no doubt that Bosè married her bullfighter for love. But as the years wore on, she felt increasing dismay at his right-wing politics, his compulsive womanising and his stubborn refusal to allow his wife to work. It did not help that she hated bullfighting and nothing would induce her to attend a corrida.

Anyone could see the couple came from radically different worlds. Lucia Bosè had been born in great poverty on a farm outside Milan. She had little if any formal education and had to work from the age of twelve. As a teenage girl, she survived the Allied bombing and saw the corpses of Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, hanging upside down in the main city’s square. “I learned that horrible things happen every day,” she said. “All you can do is pull yourself together and keep going.” By the age of sixteen, she landed a job behind the counter at Galli, the city’s most elegant patisserie. One day a dashing older man walked in, took one look at the girl and declared she ought to be in movies. The name of this man was Luchino Visconti. It appears he had no ulterior motives; he was gay and had eyes at the time for his young and handsome assistant, Franco Zeffirelli. But he took Bosè under his wing and groomed her systematically into a star.

At first, Visconti had plans to star her opposite Gérard Philipe in a film called A Tale of Poor Lovers. But the funding fell apart so he introduced his protégée instead to Michelangelo Antonioni. She became that director’s first muse and starred for him in Chronicle of a Love (1950) and The Lady without Camellias (1953). She went on to work for other European auteurs, notably Juan Antonio Bardem in Death of a Cyclist (1955) and Luis Buñuel in Cela S’Appelle L’Aurore (1956). This was the career she gave up in 1955 in order to marry Dominguín and lead, essentially, the life of an upper-class Spanish housewife. At the time, she assured the world’s press that her marriage was worth every sacrifice. (One can assume Dominguín was phenomenally good at something apart from killing bulls!) But after twelve years, Bosè decided enough was enough and made her break for freedom. She demanded – and won – sole custody of her children and became the first woman in Spain since the Civil War to be legally granted a divorce.

The events in Of Love and Other Solitudes are in no way as dramatic as these. María and her husband Alejandro (Carlos Estrada) are a well-heeled couple who live in a villa on the outskirts of Madrid. He is an economist and university professor; she is an artist who works in stained glass. Her job, of course, is symbolic. (Be warned this is one of those movies where literally everything is symbolic of something.)  The art of stained glass is not primarily the art of creating anything new or even of reshaping objects in a new way. It consists almost entirely of altering the light in which things appear, of making them look new when in fact they are not. The couple have a son and daughter and a sizable domestic staff. But their house, with its long wood-panelled corridors and walls of clear glass, looks more like an expensive hotel than a family home.

The most annoying thing about Alejandro is that he does not do any of the things that bad husbands in movies traditionally do. There is no reason to believe he is cheating on his wife. Apart from one feeble effort to chat up a girl at his office, he seems to lack the imagination or the energy an affair would require. This is not so much a bad marriage as one that has gone stale. The husband and the wife have simply run out of things to say to one another, assuming they said much in the first place. María consults a psychologist who tells her: “Everyone who gets married is convinced their marriage will be different from the others – and then it isn’t.” What is interesting in this film is not the drama (there is virtually none) but the arid bourgeois lifestyle it evokes. Alejandro and María lead superficially modern lives, but in a country where social and religious attitudes have changed hardly at all since the Middle Ages.

María is the one character who seems in any way aware of this disjunction. Her family background is that of the pro-Franco upper class. A full-size portrait of Franco hangs just inside the front door of her parents’ house. In the next room, in a glass display case, are her father’s medals from the Civil War. She has an obscure sense this is not the world she belongs in – and expresses it in odd and somewhat childish ways. On one wall in her studio hangs a poster of Theda Bara in Cleopatra. In World War I this star was Middle America’s image of the Vamp, the Temptress, the morally and sexually transgressive Apostle of Sin. But it now takes a great deal of naïveté to see Theda Bara as threatening or subversive in any way. She entirely lacks the sophistication and sexual autonomy of the silent Italian divas – most notably, that of Francesca Bertini whom Bosè oddly resembles.

With her vast and haunted dark eyes, her ivory skin and her lustrous torrent of black hair, Lucia Bosè has all the allure of the silent divas and then some. There are stray moments in Of Love and Other Solitudes where she suggests Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa – who has casually stepped out of her frame and deigned to wander about among mere mortals. There are other moments where we notice her chunky and ungainly hands, her way of walking that is at once elegant and strangely awkward. Details like this do not destroy the illusion; they only make us like her more. This film proved a succès d’estime for Bosè and her writer-director Basilio Martin Patino. She followed it with a string of increasingly odd movies. In Arcana (1972) she plays a witch who spits live toads out of her mouth. In La Messe Dorée (1975) she is a socialite who hosts an orgy based on the Roman Catholic mass and winds up giving a blow-job to her son. Was it entirely an accident that her ex-husband’s friend General Franco dropped dead not long after?

She survived into old age as a truly glorious eccentric. At eighty she sported bright blue hair and a designer punk wardrobe and said she had every intention of living to 105. She appeared occasionally in movies but her true passion was a museum she opened to display her art collection, which was made up entirely of images of angels. Her closest companion was her son Miguel Bosé, Spain’s first out gay pop star and the transvestite Femme Letal in the Pedro Almodóvar film High Heels (1991). One almost wishes Almodóvar had starred his mother in a flashy, trashy remake of Travels with My Aunt or Auntie Mame. She could have played either or both roles to perfection and would, in fact, have barely needed to act.

Lucia Bosè passed away in March, 2020 due to complications arising from Covid-19. She was the first famous person in any country to fall ill and die in what would become a global pandemic. Her life was spent knowing that terrible things happen every day and the one choice we all have is to pull ourselves together and keep going. In the world as it is today, that stands as a legacy in itself.

IN MEMORIAM LUCIA BOSÈ (MILAN 1931-SEGOVIA 2020)

David Melville

Lucia Bosé dies at 89 from pneumonia | Spain's News

FORBIDDEN DIVAS RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2020 by dcairns

Certainly, what we’ve been missing here at Shadowplay is an Olivia de Havilland appreciation, and who better to provide it than David Melville Wingrove?

Who Killed the Black Widder?

“A halo can be a lovely thing – but you must be able to take it off now and again.”

  • Olivia De Havilland, My Cousin Rachel

In 1952, Olivia de Havilland stood at the pinnacle of everything an actress in Hollywood could reasonably hope to achieve. She had made her screen debut at eighteen in the classic Warner Bros extravaganza A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and was the one actress in it not to be upstaged by the costumes. In her eight films with Errol Flynn, she had formed half of the most enduringly popular on-screen couple of the 30s. She had played a leading role in Gone with the Wind (1939) – the most commercially successful film of all time – as the ‘good girl’ Melanie Hamilton to Vivien Leigh’s ‘bad girl’ Scarlett O’Hara. When Warner Bros tried to prolong her contract illegally, she had taken the studio to court and won her freedom. She had rounded out the 40s by winning two Oscars for Best Actress, one for To Each His Own (1946) and one for The Heiress (1949). She was not, to put it mildly, what anyone could ever call an underachiever.

On a personal level, de Havilland had grown out of the shadow of her loving but controlling mother and her jealously competitive sister Joan Fontaine. Having been linked romantically to James Stewart and Burgess Meredith, John Huston and Howard Hughes, she had finally got married at the age of thirty to the writer Marcus Goodrich. In 1949, she had given birth to her son Benjamin and taken three years off from movies. Not that she had stayed at home washing nappies. Instead she had fulfilled a lifelong ambition by appearing on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet, in a 1951 staging that can be described politely as a succès d’estime. Apart from her on-and-off feud with her sister, she had lived with consummate discretion and good taste. Unusually for a Hollywood star, there had been no sleaze, no scandal and no dirty rumours of any sort. At the age of 35, Olivia de Havilland was a woman who had very little left to win. Her only wild card was how much she might have to lose.

Whatever she might have chosen to do in the early 50s, it was bound to involve a high level of risk. She had famously turned down the role of Blanche du Bois in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) stating that “a lady doesn’t say or do those things on the screen.” Her dilemma, in that case, was how to remain a lady while expanding her range as an actress into a new decade. That may have been part of what drew her to My Cousin Rachel (1952). The heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is neither a ‘good girl’ nor a ‘bad girl’ but a woman who may be an angel or a demon. She is a glamorous and sophisticated Anglo-Italian countess of the 1830s who finds herself widowed and penniless and burdened by debts. She marries a wealthy Cornish gentleman who dies of unexplained causes just a few months after the wedding. But his estate does not go to his widow. It passes instead to his callow and naive young cousin, Philip Ashley. It is not wholly a surprise when Rachel shows up on his doorstep – and the young man starts to fall irresistibly under her spell.

At no point in the novel do we get any clue as to what Rachel is thinking. As in du Maurier’s most famous book Rebecca – the Alfred Hitchcock film of which had made a star of Joan Fontaine in 1940 – we know the title heroine only through what the other characters say about her. The novel is narrated entirely by Philip, who falls obsessively in love with Rachel although he suspects – and with good cause – that she may have poisoned his cousin. Soon enough, she starts brewing Philip her special herbal tisanes and he has every reason to suspect she is trying to poison him. That does not dim his ardour one bit. Our hero falls in love with Rachel, not despite the fact she may be a murderess but, more likely, because of it. It is even possible that Rachel poisoned one or both of her previous husbands, but still feels genuine love for Philip. The depths of masochism in this story are profound; its central love affair makes any film noir of the 40s look like a model of domestic bliss.

The question of Rachel’s innocence or guilt – which the book leaves unanswered – presents any film-maker with a dilemma. It is similar to the one faced by David Lean in Madeleine (1950) another film about a genteel Victorian lady who may or may not have poisoned her lover. “The public wants to know if she did it,” said Noël Coward bluntly, “and you don’t tell them.” There are levels of ambiguity we can accept more easily in a novel than in a big-budget movie. But these are the levels of ambiguity de Havilland serves up with such lethal but seductive expertise. She makes her entrance robed entirely in black and photographed from behind so we do not see her face. (She is bit like Count Dracula, fresh off the boat from Transylvania.) Once she lifts her veil, we are won over by her angelic expression and her mellifluous purr of a voice – but alarmed at the same time by her cold, hard, watchful eyes. It is obvious from the first that she is playing Philip (Richard Burton) the way a virtuoso pianist might play a baby grand. But that does not make her a killer. Or does it?

In her early scenes, her dark widow’s weeds are demure almost to the point of bring dowdy. But as she gains in her ascendancy over Philip, her gowns (although they are still black) become gradually more décolleté. Her most alluring dress is off-the-shoulder and topped with lace that suggests a black spider’s web. (The costumes by Dorothy Jeakins are a film unto themselves.) Before too many scenes have elapsed, My Cousin Rachel starts to revel in one of Hollywood’s most ill-kept secrets – namely that Olivia de Havilland, for all her gentility, was a stylish and extremely sexy woman. Her performance here owes mercifully little to Terry, the Psycho Bitch Sister from Hell in the ‘identical twins’ melodrama The Dark Mirror (1946). It is a fascinating foretaste of her role as Cousin Miriam in the campy Southern Gothic gore fest Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). There is no way to separate the light and dark facets of either Miriam or Rachel. This woman is charming because she is deadly and deadly because she is charming. Her allure turns the entire audience into the hapless Philip. Had this film only been made in 3D, we too might be stretching out our hands and begging for a cup of tisane.

Nothing and nobody else in My Cousin Rachel ever rises to the level of its lead performance. Initially, de Havilland had hoped for either George Cukor or Mitchell Leisen to direct it. But Cukor decided ungraciously that she was “an actress without a secret” – and sought to cast Vivien Leigh or Greta Garbo instead. Leisen had directed her with triumph in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and To Each His Own. Better still, he was a close friend who knew Olivia’s secrets as well as anyone in Hollywood ever could. Alas, he was under contract to another studio and 20th Century-Fox was unwilling to pay the money it would have cost to borrow him. Hence the director of My Cousin Rachel is the competent but wholly uninspired Henry Koster. Richard Burton – whom de Havilland described as “a rather coarse-grained gentleman with a rather coarse-grained talent” – does well by a role that consists of glowering and looking glum for the best part of two hours. In some shots, the backs of his hands are so hairy that we wonder if he will turn out to be the Wolf Man. His co-star cannot have been pleased when Burton got an Oscar nomination and she did not.

A good film that should have been a great one, My Cousin Rachel turned out to be Olivia de Havilland’s last role as a major Hollywood star. She divorced her husband, married again and moved to Paris. She played her last movie role in the schlock killer bees epic The Swarm (1978) but stayed active on TV for another decade. For years after she retired, there were rumours she was planning a comeback – most recently in a James Ivory film of the Henry James novella The Aspern Papers. But this and any number of other projects failed to happen and her status in later years was largely symbolic. The last surviving star of the pre-war studio era, she lived on as a gracious, witty and unfailingly articulate emissary of a bygone age. She became Hollywood’s own far more glamorous answer to the Queen Mother.

But no, she never did tell us if Rachel did it or not.

IN MEMORIAM DAME OLIVIA DE HAVILLND (TOKYO 1916-PARIS 2020)

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: Many a Rainy Night in Brooklyn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns!

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

MANY A RAINY NIGHT IN BROOKLYN

“Did you ever see a crocodile yawn?”

– Lynne Overman, Her Jungle Love

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Has there ever been a film so bad that a halfway decent volcanic eruption could not put it right? “That is clearly a metaphysical speculation,” writes Oscar Wilde, “and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference to the actual facts of life, as we know them.” But then neither has anything else in Her Jungle Love (1938). So the question still strikes me as entirely valid. The climax of this movie is not just any old eruption. It brings with it a cataclysmic mudslide of ravenous man-eating crocodiles – who slither their way into a crumbling pagan temple and set about devouring much of the cast. I should add that the cast of this movie is quite a small one. At no point are the hungry reptiles in any danger from overeating.

But where is this temple and what is anybody doing inside it? It all starts when a pilot crash-lands his plane somewhere in the Malay Archipelago. Two other pilots head off in search of him and manage – with remarkable efficiency – to crash their own plane and go missing on the exact same tropic isle. (The islands of the Malay Archipelago number in the thousands, so this really is quite a slick bit of navigation.) These two pilots are Ray Milland and his annoying comic sidekick Lynne Overman. Both actors were popular stars at Paramount Pictures in the 30s. That gives us all the reassurance we need that they will not be allowed to go missing for too long.

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The island seems at first to be deserted. But of course it is not. It is inhabited by a winsome jungle maiden named Tura. She is played by Dorothy Lamour in a gallon of fake tan and a daringly skimpy line of sarongs designed by Edith Head. She does not live entirely alone in this paradise. She frolics through the vibrant green palm trees by the dazzling blue Technicolor lagoon along with Gaga – a lovably mischievous chimpanzee – and Meewa – a cute and frisky lion cub. There is no sign of any adult lions or, indeed, of any other primates on this island. We can only assume that a third plane loaded with circus animals must have crash-landed somewhere in the vicinity.

A former Miss New Orleans of 1931 and future co-star of the Road movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour was one of those Hollywood icons who never even pretended to be an actress. Her assets were her lithe and curvaceous physique (not everyone looks good in a sarong) as well as her voluptuous Technicolor lips and her dark and sultry bedroom eyes. Her dialogue in Her Jungle Love consists almost entirely of ugga-wugga gibberish, which makes it one of her more successful dramatic roles. Even strumming on a ukulele – as she is required to do in one scene – appears to strain her acting skills to breaking point.

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But alas, there is room for only one Queen on this or any other tropic isle. That role is reserved for J Carrol Naish as Kuaka, a villainous Malay prince who rules over a tribe of head-hunters that inhabit a nearby cove. His followers seem to be exclusively male; all of them are muscular and bronzed and clad in the skimpiest of loincloths. Kuaka himself wafts about in an iridescent peacock-green kaftan and with turban to match. He sports on one finger an emerald so splendiferously large and vulgar that Elizabeth Taylor might reject it as just a shade too ostentatious. He demonstrates his ascendancy by wearing even more eye make-up than Tura and speaks invariably in a low and sibilant hiss.

You have been wondering what had happened to that first missing pilot. The answer, to put it plainly, is Kuaka. He keeps the boy for quite a suspiciously long time as his private prisoner. Then he trusses him up like a mummy and sacrifices him to the Crocodile God. The rotter even hypnotises poor Tura and forces her to take part in the ceremony. He does at least dress her up in the film’s most memorable outfit: a long and trailing white cape with a headdress of white egret feathers and seashells. This man may be a savage and proud of it. But he does at least have some idea how to accessorise.

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Need I add that in the course of this blood-soaked ritual, Dorothy Lamour gets hypnotised and shoved into a basket and impaled with giant spears and resurrected and brought back to life as if by magic and none of it alters her facial expression one iota? She looks only mildly perturbed when Kuaka suggests getting married, so the two of them may rule over the island together. Even a girl who has spent most of her life in a coconut tree must surely realise this is what is described in sophisticated circles as a mariage blanc. It seems quite wildly unlikely that sex could ever be a part of the deal.

By this time, Dorothy has fallen in love with Ray because…well, because he’s there and somebody has to. His pal, meanwhile, has formed what appears to be a tender inter-species ménage à trois with her animal friends. (A scene where the chimp kisses Lynne Overman is by some measure the raunchiest bit of the movie.) It goes without saying that Ray has an overpoweringly dreary fiancée (Dorothy Howe) who nags her henpecked father into taking her off in his yacht to search for him. We start to worry that she might actually find him. I mean, where on earth is that Crocodile God when he is really needed?

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In the litany of sublime absurdities that make up the script, my favourite is the way Ray and Lynne manage to crash their plane without in any way damaging their portable gramophone. According to Lynne, this machine kept him company on “many a rainy night in Brooklyn.” Her Jungle Love may not be appreciably better or worse than The Jungle Princess (1936) or Typhoon (1940) or Aloma of the South Seas (1941) or any of Lamour’s umpteen other sarong pictures. Still, it is a well-nigh flawless antidote to rainy nights in Brooklyn.

David Melville