Archive for Rita Hayworth

E is for Estrella Vacia

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2011 by dcairns

CINE DORADO

Another installment of our alphabet of unruly passions down Mexico way, brought to you by regular guest Shadowplayer David Melville.

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

E is for La estrella vacía (The Empty Star) 

You get a lot by giving nothing. I have to give everything to get anything at all.

– Rita Macedo to María Félix

It’s no secret that Mexican cinema stole many of its best ideas from Hollywood or European models. A lavish 1958 production in colour and Mexiscope, La estrella vacía (The Empty Star) is superficially a rip-off of The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952) and The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1954), two gloriously lurid exposés of the dark side of Tinseltown. Its writer/director, Emilio Gómez Muriel, plunges us into the same piranha pool of glamorous egomaniac monsters – all ready to devour each other at a moment’s notice, if that’s what it takes to get ahead. He also borrows the complex multi-flashback structure, where a big star is remembered by everyone they used and abused on the way to the top.

Stars, of course, don’t come any bigger than María Félix – who here triumphs over her limited acting skills by essentially playing herself. Cast as a ferociously ambitious actress named Olga Lang, she seduces and discards a series of hapless men, only to wind up as a wretchedly unhappy prisoner in her own luxurious cage. Her dark beauty was never more bewitching than it is here. Her huge basilisk eyes glow, with an almost orgasmic thrill, when an obscenely rich sugar-daddy gifts her with a hideous pink Cadillac (approximately three city blocks long) or a camp fashion stylist wraps her up in a ludicrously opulent chinchilla coat.

As we can guess from María’s flamboyant performance, the term ‘too much’ is not part of this lady’s vocabulary. Just in case we miss the real-life connection, the soundtrack includes snatches of ‘María Bonita’ – a hit song composed by Agustín Lara (one of Maria’s many off-screen husbands) in honour of the star herself. This intense degree of self-revelation is what makes La estrella vacía so wildly compelling. It’s been rumoured that Rita Hayworth refused to play The Barefoot Contessa because it was modelled too closely on her own life, and that Gina Lollobrigida turned down The Lady without Camellias (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1953) for similar reasons.* María Félix clearly had no such qualms.

Not that the story is entirely true to life. The first flashback introduces María as a young wannabe from the sticks, newly arrived in Mexico City and hustling after her first job. The girl we see on screen looks a well-preserved 45 (María was born in 1914) and already boasts a fabulous wardrobe by Balenciaga and Jean Patou. Falling in love with a writer (Ignacio López Tarso) she gets pregnant but aborts his baby (two things Hollywood would not have allowed) and soon dumps him for a slick wheeler-dealer played by Tito Junco. Her new man catapults her to fame by a simple but effective trick. When a famous matador is fatally gored in the bullring, Maria pretends she was his fiancée and poses tearfully at his deathbed for a swarm of paparazzi.

There are, of course, whispered intimations of the casting couch. (As Maria’s alcoholic flatmate warns her: “Contracts don’t just get signed in offices!”) Still, the script asks us to believe that María never sleeps with Junco. She just graciously allows him to set her up in a lavish penthouse and star her in a string of prize-winning but money-losing motion pictures. (To be fair, many a Hollywood star’s memoir tells us much the same thing.) There are no such alibis when she hooks up with Mexico’s wealthiest tycoon. (“He owns the building you live in, the studio you work in, perhaps even the water you drink!”) He fires Junco, to whom María pledges her undying love and loyalty. She then promptly picks up the telephone and calls the tycoon.

María soon embezzles enough money to be comfortably set-up when said tycoon drops dead of a heart attack. She blows most of it, alas, on a new husband – a composer who takes a job with her company, and then uses it to screw all the available starlets. When María dares to complain, he beats her up and breaks her nose. It’s her gay stylist who helps her back from the brink, never mind that his loyalty strikes her as some sort of character defect. (“You know you don’t have anyone. That’s why you value friendship, because you have nothing else!”) He gets his due only after she dies in a plane crash. Moping around her mock-Beverly Hills mansion, one of the other men admits: “You are the only one who loved her without interest!”

Our own interest in La estrella vacía will hinge on an appetite for showbiz sleaze and gossip, and also a fascination with María Félix. That lady’s 30-year-reign as Queen of Mexican Cinema embodied a sort of Platonic Ideal of Motion Picture Stardom, one that was wholly divorced from minor technicalities like acting or talent. Unlike the heroines of The Barefoot Contessa or The Lady without Camellias, the tragic diva in La estrella vacía is not the hapless victim of a cruel and male-dominated industry. Whether we call her María Félix or Olga Lang, she is – gloriously and without apology – at once her own creator and her own myth. This woman has no need of a mere man to destroy her. Proudly, she is nobody’s victim but her own. 

David Melville

*Reri, star of Murnau’s TABU, sued the producers of BAREFOOT CONTESSA claiming the film’s plotline was plagiarized from her own life story. 

Advertisements

The Look of… what?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2011 by dcairns

Or how a certain dead-eyed shark gaze was handed down through film history from the forties, to the fifties, to the nineties — I haven’t found the sixties, seventies and noughties versions yet.

“One who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end.” Rita Hayworth’s psycho stare here is clearly an echo of Glenn Anders’ loony gaze earlier when he proposes his crazy murder scheme to Orson on the clifftop. Does the film propose Rita as the source of this madness, transmitted to those in her circle? A gaze-borne mental malady?

Bardot, in one of the few roles that deployed any of her many qualities other than a certain physical pertness — LA FEMME ET LE PANTIN. Here, she actually manages to drop a hint of PITY in with the psychopathic chill. It’s not a warm pity, though, it’s much more a look that says, “It’s such a shame I’m going to do this to you, but because you are who you are, I totally am.”

“Gone, gone, like a turkey in the corn.”

The greatly underrated Sheryl Lee in TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME. I still remember the reviews carping that she wasn’t up to playing a leading role, which was grossly unfair as she is ASTONISHING in this film. Again, like Bardot she was discovered and cast for her cuteness, to play a good-looking corpse, and turned out to have so much more going for her. See also: MOTHER NIGHT, WINTER’S BONE… hmmm, those two sound like parts of a series. What would the third film be called?

Anyway, the above movies are only touched upon in this week’s edition of The Forgotten, which is about something else. Find out what by going here.

Here’s the Bardot scene, which is fairly understandable, and fairly interesting, even if you don’t speak French of have the invaluable Mr Wingrove to hand to translate for you…

Shoot the Money

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on May 2, 2011 by dcairns

When students first start editing dialogue scenes in their films, often their first instinct is to simply show the person talking. While Jack Webb makes this work in DRAGNET, film and TV show, it isn’t usually an expressive or involving approach, since it deprives us of a lot of emotional connection which comes from watching the listener rather than the speaker. An editor needs to be like a mind-reader, predicting what the audience wants to see in order to follow the emotional flow of the conversation.

To prove that the person speaking need not be the person visible, I often show students Rita Hayworth’s first appearance in GILDA, which is an exemplary scene in all kinds of ways, not least of which is the way a scene involving a newly-wed husband and wife and a friend is arranged so as to practically exclude the husband altogether. While appearing to assemble his material in a conventional, commonsense manner, director Charles Vidor (and editor Charles Nelson) actually lead the audience to realise very strongly the undercurrent of attraction that hubby is unaware of.

One effect of using this clip as a teaching aid is that poor George MacReady’s exclusion from his own bedroom scene becomes increasingly hilarious once your attention is drawn to it. Before we even get to the boudoir, Vidor uses a camera move to push in on Glenn Ford, who matters here, and exclude MacReady, who apparently doesn’t. Of course, the real purpose for the track-in, or maybe the alibi, is to emphasise Glenn’s emotional reaction to the unexpected presence of a woman. Glenn and George have been very close, you see.

Rita’s first appearance, with the spectacular hair-flip, is striking for other reasons. She gets a big close-up, deliberately boosting her over the two menfolk, who have just been seen in a knee-length medium shot that makes them virtual pygmies in her presence. Her appearance has IMPACT, and it’s a purely cinematic creation: if you were in that room, you’d have seen her long before she enters frame from below like a surfacing shark, and you’d have seen her in the same kind of distant mid-shot as the boys get. The effect is WOW. No wonder Glenn has to grab the door frame for support. And note Rita’s eschewing of femme fatale smolder in favour of a googly-eyed ditziness that’s much more effective for being indirect.

Vidor then intercuts between some intense looks between his two leads which apparently George doesn’t notice at all, because when we get back to the wide shot he’s perfectly happy and unsuspicious. That’s the mood he leaves us with, because he’s not going to be glimpsed again until the end of the scene. Now he leads Glenn forward to be introduced (Glenn walking like a small boy in his way to some frightful corporal punishment), and we cut to —

A splendiferous wide of the boudoir in which we get a full-length Rita x2, an O/S of Glenn, and no sign of George. So irrelevant to this love scene that he doesn’t even cast a reflection in the vast dressing table mirror.

Rita now advances into an O/S midshot, and when we cut to the logical reverse of that, her great head of hair is completely obscuring our view of George. And we find that we don’t mind that at all. Now a long dialogue can play out, most of it between George and Rita, but what the visual scheme is telling us is something very different — this is a scene about Glenn and Rita. The scene is cut exactly as if Glenn were doing the talking — you can amuse yourselves by imagining George’s voice as being telepathic communications from inside Glenn Ford’s head.

Then a big close-up of Rita, simmering away, all sultry and smoking, while Glenn and George converse meaninglessly. You can imagine this bit as being about the voices in Rita’s head. It won’t get you anywhere, but you can totally do it.

Finally Glenn gets a close-up, very slightly smaller than Rita’s (I blame the hair) but basically a match. George is still AWOL, literally phoning his performance in for all we know. He should’ve got a special award for giving a radio performance in a feature film. Vidor continues in a shot-reverse-shot pattern that would seem entirely conventional except that one half of the conversation has been usurped by the silent, moody Mr. Ford. This is a classic example of the conventions of film-making being used in a defiantly unconventional way for expressive reasons.

Vidor cuts back to the MS of Ford and some strange guy we’ve never seen before — oh wait, it’s George MacReady — crashes the shot and swoops in to kiss Rita. But Vidor isn’t through humiliating the oblivious dope: perversely, he uses shot-reverse-shot cutting on Ford and Hayworth to make them interact during the kiss. MacReady may be owner of the lips descending on Hayworth’s expensive face, but it’s Ford she’s thinking about. Further sadomasochistic intrigue oozes in as she calls him “hired help” — Glenn’s reaction shot here — *GULP* — is priceless, as he swallows his pride like a bad oyster. In the words of Bart Simpson, if you use slomo, you can actually see the moment his heart breaks.

Glenn’s shoulder frames the next three-shot, where George again has his back to us. A fresh angle allows him at least a profile, salvaging some of the poor guy’s dignity, but he’s still way off to the side, with Ford obviously the subject of the shot and Rita’s cascade of hair taking up more screen space than either man.

Then Glenn slopes off, George bounding after him (unusual to see this actor so puppylike). Entertain yourselves one more time by abolishing perspective and picturing the back of Rita’s head as being actually bigger than all of George MacReady. Now you have an unforgettable and accurate image of their wedding night.

George leaves, and Rita caps the scene with a brooding, smoky close-up and another swish of her hair, a sort of bookend to the action.

Now, “Shoot the money” was a well-known Hollywood saying, meaning that the stars get the limelight and the character players have to fend for themselves, grabbing moments when they can (which may have helped produce the manic, intense and over-eager style so beloved in successful bit actors like Pangborn or Demarest). But obviously, I hope, there’s more than that going on here — the cutting is telling a story that’s very different from that carried in the words. Of course, many of those words are laden with subtext too, but in a classically Hollywood manner, Vidor reinforces the meaning of the scene through framing and cutting. And it makes great use of the slower cutting pace of the period. Nowadays, when editing is so fast, even in conversations, I can imagine someone saying, “Why not have a quick glimpse of George, just to remind us he’s there?” And of course, the answer is, “As far as these two are concerned, he’s not there.”

Dedicated to the memory of Bert Eeles, my editor on CRY FOR BOBO, who died last week.