Mr. Blackwell Was My Neighbor
January 31, 2015 § 2 Comments
Many people have an Oscar fantasy, whether or not they have any connection to filmmaking. Most of these involve making a great speech that simultaneously expresses gratitude toward the deserving and snarkiness to the naysayers. But my Oscar fantasy concerns fashion: on the obligatory march down the red carpet, I respond to questions about my outfit and jewelry with, “They’re my own.” (Wait a minute!, you say. Writers and directors don’t wear borrowed gowns and jewels! Oh yes they do, even documentarians.)
If you’ve ever seen old newsreel footage of the Academy Awards from the days when ceremonies were held at the Roosevelt or Pantages, you’ll notice that all the actresses look gorgeous in their gowns and jewels. That’s because a) dressing well was a requirement of their contracts, and b) they’re wearing their own dresses. Even if they were lucky enough to have Edith Head or Adrian design something special for the event, actresses’ clothes were created for them, not six-foot models in Vogue.
This went until the 1960s, when the demise of the studio system coincided with a seismic shift in fashion. Suddenly it was hard to know what formal dress was anymore: long? short? pantsuit? (I’m leaving actors out of this discussion because black tie is pretty straightforward, variations in color and lapel size notwithstanding.) It was fashion chaos, and what ensued was a two-decade period where actresses came to the Academy Awards wearing everything under the sun, with memorable results. Leaving aside Cher and Bjork–because musicians tend toward outré fashion, no matter what the year–I particularly recall Kim Basinger’s 1990 white crinolined ball gown, which was strapless on one side and long-sleeved on the other. She designed it herself, and it made her look like a demented Cinderella. But it also added fun to the three-hour Oscar telecast.
This period of home-designed disasters might have gone on longer if not for the increasing power of Mr. Blackwell, a former fashion designer who found fame and fortune with his Worst Dressed List. Annually he would make the TV news with his round-up of the chief offenders of fashion, mostly actresses, though singers like Cher, Madonna and Britney Spears appeared regularly. It was a big deal. On the second Tuesday of each January, reporters from all the networks would gather at his house for live broadcasts about The List, which was widely discussed.
For sixteen years, I was Mr. Blackwell’s neighbor, living around the corner from his Italianate house on Irving Avenue. (His house happened to be down the block from the old Harold Lloyd house, which I wrote about in this post https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/harold-lloyd-lived-here/) My street had houses on one side, and with only a tall hedge dividing his back yard from my street I could hear the Worst Dressed media circus. Because I had a dog that I walked around the block least twice a day, I soon struck up a superficial acquaintance with Mr. Blackwell and his longtime companion. Whenever I saw them in their front courtyard, we would say hello.
Years passed. My dog died and I got another. My son grew up. By the early 2000s, I saw Mr. Blackwell less often, and then not at all. Then in 2005 I moved–only 4 1/2 miles away, but it might as well have been to a different city. I didn’t think about Mr. Blackwell until I saw his obituary in 2008, after which I forgot about him again. Then last week Jason Sheeler published an article about Mr. Blackwell inEntertainment Weekly, and the memories came rushing back.
It’s not online, but “Mr. Blackwell: The Original Red Carpet Bitch” (EW, Jan. 30-Feb-4 2015) does a good job of summing up the life and work of Richard Selzer, a.k.a., Mr. Blackwell. There was much for me to learn: his real name, for one thing, and the fact that he was from Brooklyn and first worked as a hustler on Central Park West. From there he came to Hollywood, where he was an unsuccessful actor and a somewhat more successful agent and fashion designer. The Worst Dressed List grew out of a column he started writing in 1960 for American Weekly magazine. Originally it included the Best Dressed, but no one cared about fashion successes: everyone just wanted the failures. By 1964, he was famous, and would be for the next forty years.
According to the article, toward the end of his life, Mr. Blackwell became obsessed with his legacy, and for good reason. By the time he died in 2008, the red carpet had been transformed from an amusing hit-or-miss collection of party clothes to a serious business. Kim Basinger exemplifies the change: eight years after her fashion fiasco, she won Best Supporting Actress in a celadon satin gown by Escada that received universal praise. (It had to, since it was copied from Edith Head’s stunning draped gown for Grace Kelly when she won Best Actress for “The Country Girl” in 1955.) Playing It Safe was the new rule of red carpet fashion, and still is. For the past twenty years, few, if any, actresses have worn their own clothes and jewelry to the Oscars, and a large industry has grown up around the stylists who dress them in borrowed finery.
Though there are few fashion disasters on today’s red carpets, there is also less fun and no surprise. No one wants to be laughed at, whether by Mr. Blackwell, Joan and Melissa Rivers, US Magazine or EW itself, and anything truly original would be an open invitation to ridicule. In the end Mr. Blackwell’s Worst Dressed List spawned cookie cutter gowns in safe colors, borrowed jewels from Cartier, Tiffany and Harry Winston, and an overall blandness. What a shame he isn’t around to see it.
Oscar Snubs and Best Picture Fiascos, Past and Present
January 24, 2015 § 1 Comment
The recent hand wringing over the lack of nominations for “Selma” beyond Best Picture was surprising, given the fact that most of the people writing about it should know that nominations are not given out of fairness or merit. (Profitability is also beside the point, otherwise at least one “Fast and Furious” or “Spiderman” movie would have been nominated for Best Picture by now.) It’s as if they’ve forgotten that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not some sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval-giving organization but a by-invitation-only private club whose members (according to a recent LA Times poll) are:
86% fifty or older, median age 62
Not exactly a picture of diversity, yet over the years these members have nominated a raft of offbeat choices for Best Picture, films like “The Tree of Life,” “Pulp Fiction,” and this year’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Winning is another matter: although other nominations come from the corresponding branches, every eligible member votes for the Best Picture nominations, which explains why the directors of Best Picture nominees aren’t necessarily nominated for Best Director. Given the size and occupational variety of the AMPAS electorate, the Best Picture winner is often not so much a matter of what everyone loves most as what everyone hates least. Accordingly, the winners are usually bland and sometimes the worst of the bunch. Does anyone really think “Crash,” is a better film than “Brokeback Mountain”? That “Forrest Gump” is better than “Pulp Fiction”? That “Dances with Wolves” is better than “Goodfellas”? Yet all the former won Best Picture; the latter lost.
My all-time favorite undeserving Best Picture winner is 1980’s “Ordinary People,” a family melodrama that even at the time of its release looked less like a feature film than a middling TV Movie-of-the-Week. But it starred Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore and was directed by Robert Redford, all formidable stars near height of their powers, so it beat not one but three vastly superior films: “Raging Bull,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and “The Elephant Man.” (If that weren’t enough, the voters gave the Best Director award to Robert Redford, who beat not only Martin Scorsese but David Lynch and Roman Polanski for the award. Did anyone really think Redford was the best director of the group?) Never mind: history determines the real winner. Today “Raging Bull” is considered one of the greatest films of all time, while “Ordinary People” is remembered mainly as the movie that introduced Timothy Hutton, whose Best Supporting Actor win is the apex of his career so far.
Whichever nominee wins this year’s award for Best Picture, the real best picture winner won’t be determined for at least a decade. How will we know? It’ll be the movie we’re still watching and thinking about. If the past is any indication, it won’t be the one with the Oscar.
Meet the Director: Yesterday’s Foreign Film Symposium at the American Cinematheque
January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment
Because my days are mostly spent sitting in front of a computer, playing Words With Friends, going to the gym and running errands, I sometimes think Los Angeles is wasted on me, since all those things could be done as well (and in the case of errands, more easily) elsewhere. Then I remember what keeps me here: films. It’s not just the variety and number of movies that come out each week; it’s the fact that many of them will never run anywhere else in the United States but here and New York. Sure, most will eventually turn up on DVD or online, but by then they’ll be competing with a flood of new releases, both theatrical and online. With greater numbers of films released each year, keeping up is nearly impossible.
But in Los Angeles I can see a great new film from Poland or Estonia as soon as it arrives, and on a big screen. It’s something that I’ve never taken for granted, any more than I take for granted the state-of-the-art sound systems and screens at ArcLight Hollywood, my neighborhood theater. In other cities, even ones that pride themselves on their cultural offerings, the situation is quite different: the Bay Area, where I used to live, gets big studio releases one or two weeks later than Los Angeles, the same as most cities across the country, while independent and foreign ones films open even later, if at all.
There are other perks to being here, too. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about “Force Majeure,” Sweden’s entry for Best Foreign Film.
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/force-majeure-everything-wild-isnt-and-more/ Yesterday, at the American Cinematheque’s pre-symposium reception for the Golden Globe nominees, I was able to introduce myself to Ruben Ostlund, the director, and tell him how much I loved his film. Although he was gracious, it probably meant nothing to him. But to me it was a vivid reminder of why, twenty-five years after moving to Los Angeles, I’m still here.
Today’s Hollywood Reporter Article on Hollywoodland
January 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
Of course I don’t speak for them; I never said I did. My intent in starting Under the Hollywood Sign was to promote my writing and documentaries and to write about what interested me–namely film–and I was happy to return to it.
Although I plan to keep my vow, today I’m making an exception for the Hollywood Reporter’s article. Senior writer Gary Baum has done a masterful job in exploring the Hollywoodland’s predicament as an accidental, out-of-control tourist destination, presenting its history and present-day circumstances in a thoughtful and balanced way. As one of the many residents he interviewed, I can attest to his thoroughness and hard work. Here’s the link: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/war-hollywood-sign-pits-wealthy-761385
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