May 21, 2020 § 2 Comments
Soon after Netflix released the new Ryan Murphy-Ian Brennan miniseries “Hollywood,” I heard from Chris Yogerst, a University of Wisconsin film professor who has corresponded with me off and on since 2010, that Peg Entwistle’s story was a major theme. Naturally, I got right on it.
Since releasing my short film “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” in 2009 and my book of essays (Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign) in 2013, a number of Peg-related projects have been announced, such as this one ://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/the-newly-announced-peg-entwistle-biopic/ , but “Hollywood” is the first major one to be completed. It’s also the most imaginative, using Peg’s story not as a grim cautionary tale but the departure point for a wildly revisionist Hollywood history.
At the outset of “Hollywood,” a script about Peg is greenlit by the Paramount-like Ace Studios. The screenwriter, Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) is predictably male but also black, and his struggle to make it in Hollywood gives him empathy for Peg’s tragic story. Fortunately for Archie, his champions at Ace Studios are self-professed outsiders: the director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), though passing for white, is half-Filipino, and the acting head of production Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone) is a former silent film star whose acting career was cut short by her apparent Jewishness.
Though the Peg Entwistle project begins as a straightforward biopic featuring a blonde, white starlet, Avis agrees to cast Claire Wood (Samira Weaving), a Dorothy Dandridge-like actress whose screen test blows away the competition, in the lead. Thus Peg becomes Meg, and the film changes from a tragedy to a triumph of interracial romance and career redemption. If that weren’t enough, a major subplot involves Archie’s romance with the young Rock Hudson, and the couple soon smash racial and sexual barriers by walking the red carpet hand-in-hand at the Oscars. When Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) becomes the first Asian to win an Academy Award, every studio-era wrong is righted, and it’s only 1948.
In short,”Hollywood” is a fantasia of racial and sexual justice. Though it’s based in fact–Rock Hudson, his manager Henry Willson (Jim Parsons) and the gas station/prostitution ring all existed–the series becomes increasingly fantastical as it careens toward a universal happy ending. This revisionism actually works for Peg Entwistle’s story, which–stripped of her Depression Era suicide–becomes a tale of movie stardom and true love.
Unfortunately, Ryan and Brennan can’t let go of the biggest myth about Peg: that the Hollywood Sign symbolized Hollywood The Industry. In fact, it didn’t even symbolize Hollywood The Place. As I’ve said many times, the Hollywoodland Sign (which is how it appeared even when “Hollywood,” is set) was a billboard for the neighborhood where it stood. What it symbolized was real estate, nothing more. If Peg Entwistle hadn’t been living in Beachwood Canyon in 1932, she would have chosen another spot from which to jump–or might not have jumped at all.
As for Peg’s drinking beforehand, it didn’t happen, not only because there were no legal alcohol or bars during the Depression but because no inebriate could have climbed Mt. Lee, let alone the ladder to the top of the H. In “Meg” this fiction does, however, give Rock Hudson something to do: in the role of bartender, he not only serves Meg a drink but tells her how to get to the Sign. The directions, it should be noted, are accurate.
For Peg Entwistle’s actual story, as well as photos and artifacts, here are links to my film, documentaries and book:
March 26, 2020 § Leave a comment
The last time I thought about writing a post, it was going to be about Harvey Weinstein, who had just been sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault. Seeing a rich, powerful man appropriately punished was novel and gratifying, but my story was personal: an account of my first, last and mercifully non-criminal encounter with Weinstein. But it can wait.
How quickly and dramatically the world has changed in the past couple of weeks, as the corona virus has gone from a terrifying overseas crisis to a terrifying domestic one. Although I may not have been among the earliest Californians to self-quarantine, I locked myself in a week before orders came from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and California Governor Newsom, after attending in short order a post-surgical physical therapy session in a packed facility, a lively restaurant dinner, and a crowded funeral reception. Unnerved by the amount of close physical contact I’d had between March 10th and 13th, I decided to stay home and see no one for two weeks.
Because I live alone and work at home, spending a hundred percent of my time alone didn’t strike me as dramatically different from my usual routine, but I soon realized it was. Though outside activities consumed perhaps twenty percent of my waking hours, running errands and seeing family and friends made a huge difference, and I missed it. By Day 4, I actually felt lonely—an emotion I’d previously felt only in the company of narcissists. When I complained on the phone to my son, who was days away from his own self-quarantine, he said, “You? But you’re a writer!” True, but I wasn’t a hermit until very recently.
Fortunately, by Day 6—the eve of the state-wide shelter-in-place order—I had turned a corner and no longer felt sad, or even particularly alone. Part of the reason was that housework, cooking, gardening, doing my own physical therapy and trying to write left me no time to think about loneliness, let alone wallow in it. The other reason, I suspect, is human adaptability: most people can get used to anything, however strange and unpleasant, and I am predisposed to adapt quickly.
This week, as I embraced my new life under Covid19, news surfaced that Harvey Weinstein, ensconced in a hospital on Riker’s Island, had tested positive for the corona virus. Although only three weeks had passed since his incarceration, Weinstein had become antique, a relic from the shiny world of restaurants, stores, concerts, movie theaters. Now that all the fun places were shuttered, he was irrelevant.
Next time: Movies that speak to our circumstances
October 8, 2019 § Leave a comment
Not wanting to fight the crowds, I skipped the opening weekend of “Joker” in favor of one of last night’s shows at ArcLight Hollywood. While not sold out, the theater was unusually full for a Monday. Despite media and government (!) warnings of danger, my audience was well-behaved throughout, watching attentively and applauding respectfully at the end. If my experience sounds anti-climactic, it’s because it was.
I like dark films, and “Joker” is unrelenting in that regard. Gotham is bleak and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) leads a bleak life in its bleakest parts, spending his days as a clown-for-hire and his nights as his barmy mother’s caretaker. Friendless, poor, mentally unsound and marginalized, Arthur is a punching bag for everyone, from street kids to drunken office bros on the subway. It’s only a matter of time before this sad clown snaps, and when he does he starts killing with gusto.
At that point “Joker” makes perfect sense: as a revenge movie enacted by a bottled-up loner, and the latest installment in a grand cinematic tradition. Better still, it satisfyingly conjures up the glorious films that influenced the director, Todd Phillips, (who co-wrote the script with Scott Silver): “Taxi Driver”, “The King of Comedy” and “Fight Club”, among others. Unfortunately, logic grinds to a halt when Phillips tries to equate Arthur Fleck’s myriad troubles to those of society at large, and his lonely search for a scapegoat to class struggle.
As soon as Arthur discovers revenge, he unleashes a movement of violent, clown-mask wearing malcontents who wreak havoc on Gotham and its elites. What’s missing from this uprising is a goal apart from mayhem. Lacking both leadership and a set of demands, the clown mob is purely nihilistic. And, like Arthur Fleck, its members embrace violence not as a means but an end.
I found a lot to like about “Joker”: Joaquin Phoenix’s electrifying and kinetic performance; the saturated colors of his clothes and the interiors; the dank Bronx locations that simutaneously evoke the past and future of urban life. Todd Phillips, previously best known for his “Hangover” series, never wavers from this gloomy esthetic, and as a result “Joker” seems like a much better film than it is. But the over-the-top violence makes it a snuff film at times, and Arthur’s killing spree makes sympathy impossible. When I left the theater (along with an audience that seemed even politer than before), I knew that one viewing would last me a lifetime. What I did want to watch again were the films “Joker” pays homage too, though I’ve seen them all multiple times. “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy” and “Fight Club” all have a coherence that “Joker” aims for and misses. But for a comic book origin movie, it’s first-rate.
June 30, 2019 § Leave a comment
Long before “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman,” there was “The Doors.” Twenty-eight years have passed since Oliver Stone’s ambitious biopic was released in theaters, a span of time that caught me by surprise. Because I’ve seen it several times since on DVD, and because Jim Morrison remains a pop culture legend (more on that in a future post), it’s hard for me to think of “The Doors” as an old movie, but apparently it is.
Fortunately, last Thursday’s screening of “The Doors: The Final Cut,” at the Aero gave me the chance to see it again on a big screen in a re-edited and remastered edition. While the structure is essentially the same–Stone eliminated one superflous scene toward the end–higher picture and sound quality have transformed the film.
When I first saw “The Doors,” I found it uneven and at times chaotic; for years, what I remembered most were the beautifully shot, trippy scenes in the Mojave Desert. This time, the film seemed far more cohesive. Particularly effective is the development of “Light My Fire”, which we follow from Robby Krieger’s initial verse to early renditions to the recording session, followed by ever-bigger live performances. I was impressed by the concert scenes, which quickly progress from electrifying club dates to electrifying stadium shows. From Val Kilmer’s searing portrayal of Jim Morrison to the fully-immersed extras in the audience, the concerts are uncontrived and exciting to watch. Part of this has to do with the improved sound and 4K resolution: technology has caught up with, and enhanced, Stone’s grand vision.
In the Q & A after the screening, Stone mentioned that the naked dancers in the concerts took off their clothes on their own accord. “We didn’t tell them to,” he said, adding that the extras also brought their own performance-enhancing drugs. He pointed out that Val Kilmer, whose voice sounds uncannily like Morrison’s, did about 80% of the singing, an amazing feat.
I was hoping to hear Kilmer’s take on his bravura performance, but as he wasn’t feeling well that night it was left to Stone to praise him. I came away from “The Doors: The Final Cut” with greater admiration for Kilmer’s acting and Stone’s direction, as well as a new appreciation for the film. I’m sure that audiences–including those that never saw the original cut–will love it too.
October 13, 2017 § Leave a comment
Just kidding! The news of Harvey Weinstein’s rampant sexual abuse reached far beyond New York and Los Angeles. It spread like molten lava, and each new day brought another fiery stream of damning evidence against him. The list of women who have been assaulted in one way or another is enormous and stretches back decades. Was I surprised? Only at the way it happened, with an exposé in the New York Times unleashing an explosion of accounts from actresses, models, employees–in short, any woman who came within Weinstein’s thuggish reach.
I’ve only encountered Harvey Weinstein once, in a crowded screening room at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995. I was sitting next to a young man whose name I no longer remember; as I recall, he worked in acquisitions for one of the studios. When Harvey Weinstein sat down in the next row with his entourage, he turned to me and loudly said something like, “Hope, have you ever seen such an ugly man in your life? I mean, look at him” “Shh,” I muttered, “He can hear you.” At that point, Weinstein turned and glared menacingly at the man. Though that might have been his usual expression, I was terrified he would start a fight. Fortunately the lights dimmed, and Weinstein turned his head toward the screen. I never saw the either man after that festival, though I’ve often wondered what prompted the comment–and my involvement.
That year at Cannes, Weinstein bought scores of films, far more than he could release in the next couple of years. The rumor was that he bought many simply to spite other distributors, which only added to his growing list of enemies. Though I never heard anything about sexual abuses, the fact that Weinstein was already a feared and loathed bully made the allegations easy to believe. He was so powerful that he could make or break careers, which is why he got away with so much.
In the years since, I’ve often wondered why certain actresses, all promising and successful in their early and mid-twenties, seemed to work very little in what should have been their prime. It made no sense to me that Gwyneth Paltrow, Rosanna Arquette, Mira Sorvino and Rose McGowan had careers that stalled; now it does.
Next time: Encounters with A-List Hollywood Creeps
August 1, 2017 § Leave a comment
My first job after college was an odd mix of performing arts and social work. Each week, San Francisco’s theaters, dance and opera companies and orchestras would funnel their unsold tickets to my firm, which would distribute them to social service groups that could fill seats on short notice. Our clients were low-income seniors, recovering alcoholics, pregnant teenage girls and the mentally ill, all of them living or receiving care in facilities.
It was a job that put me in daily phone contact with theater managers, social workers and, in the case of the seniors and alcoholics, the clients themselves. First came the tickets, then the matching of shows to clients: nothing violent for the mental patients, for example, and nothing depressing for the pregnant girls. The alcoholics were the most manipulative, missing their call-in deadlines and refusing all opera, symphony and ballet. The mental patients were the most frequent no-shows and disrupters, while the pregnant girls never wanted to see anything. The seniors were by far the most reliable, and game for almost anything. Consequently, they were our most frequent clients.
Each group was escorted by one of our volunteers, local culture enthusiasts who lacked the income to see live events. They went to most of the performances, but occasionally my boss would assign me a show she thought I should see. One of these was a revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West” at the Magic Theater, which had launched first production of the play in 1980. I had never seen a Shepard play before and probably would have been impressed by any of them, but seeing “True West” in the small theater where it originated was an indelible experience. As the brothers Austin and Lee argued, drank, fought and switched personalities, I knew I was seeing a work of genius.
Sam Shepard’s side career as an actor certainly garnered him more fame and money than his career as a playwright, and like most people I’ve seen a lot of his movies. Most put him in supporting roles, where his handsome, lone cowboy looks and quiet charisma had maximum impact. Each time he appeared onscreen, whether in “Frances,” “Crimes of the Heart,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” or any number of others, I felt a wave of excitement followed by a sense of relief. Whenever Shepard showed up, the film always got better.
Hearing of his death yesterday made me wonder who would fill his shoes, both as a playwright and actor. In the former category, comparisons to Williams and O’Neill are easier than those to younger American playwrights, whose work seems paler and less universal. And in an era where young American actors stay boyish throughout their careers, the Sam Shepard roles increasingly go to Australian, Irish, Scottish or English actors. Shepard himself was often compared to Gary Cooper, a Montana native he resembled both physically and stylistically, but who will remind us of Sam Shepard?
April 6, 2016 § Leave a comment
While there’s nothing wrong with telling an artist’s story in a straightforward way, it’s fascinating when a filmmaker chooses another path. That’s what Don Cheadle does in “Miles Ahead,” which begins during the musician’s drug-addled hiatus from recording and performing in the 1970’s and ends with his comeback in the 1980’s. Although there are flashbacks to Davis’s early career and first marriage to the dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), Cheadle doesn’t bother to show Davis as a child or even a trumpet-playing youth. I’d like to think this decision isn’t because Davis grew up in a middle class family–his father was a dentist–and studied at Julliard, but because Cheadle preferred a laser-like focus on what matters most: Davis’s music.
“Miles Ahead” is helped immeasurably by the fact that Davis is only depicted as an adult and only by Don Cheadle. The actor captures everything about Davis: his creative genius, his ferocity and his mercurial charm. In doing so, he transforms himself both inside and out. I can’t fathom how difficult it must have been to pull of such feat of acting and also direct the film, but it’s a rare accomplishment for anyone, let alone a first-time director.
At a Q&A last Friday night, Cheadle declined to say which parts of the film are factual and which are fictional, but there are a lot of both. The journalist played by Ewan MacGregor is fictional, yet there’s nothing fake about his character or his function: showing us Miles Davis’s dark period of drug abuse, gunslinging and reclusion. Davis’s abuse of Frances Taylor is factual–she has said, “I actually left running for my life,” and does in the movie. But other things that couldn’t have happened are true in their essence. Davis pushes against the wall of an elevator at Columbia Records, which becomes a door to his past as a musician. A punch thrown at one character lands on another. As the film lurches from place to place, traveling through time, watching it becomes less like observing and more like entering Davis’s complicated mind. In his abstract, improvisational approach, Cheadle weaves many strands into something pure. It’s a lot like jazz.
January 23, 2016 § Leave a comment
During the 1970s, as he released a torrent of albums and shape-shifted from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to The Thin White Duke, David Bowie began to appear in leading roles in notable films. Although I had assumed Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell To Earth” (1976) was his screen debut, it wasn’t: he had appeared in a handful of English films and TV shows before it, beginning in 1967. Nevertheless, “The Man Who Fell To Earth” established David Bowie as a serious actor, rather than a rock star dabbling in movies. In it, Bowie is the quintessential alien, but his performance is nuanced and at times quite funny–my strongest memory of the film is of him singing off-key in church, not an easy thing for a singer with excellent pitch.
Over the next 30 years, Bowie went on to appear many more features–23 in all–along with numerous shorts, TV shows, documentaries and music videos. He made his Broadway debut in “The Elephant Man,” (1980), the first rock star to appear on Broadway in a drama. (His performance was pronounced “splendid” by the New York Times.) He was a pioneer of music videos, putting out filmed performances of his songs before MTV existed, as well as two of the most famous videos ever broadcast (“Let’s Dance” and “Ashes to Ashes.”)
Though not all of Bowie’s movies are good, a number of them– including “Just a Gigolo,” “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” “The Hunger,” “Labyrinth” and “Absolute Beginners”–are, and showcase his skill and range as an actor. One of my favorites is Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” (1996), in which he plays Andy Warhol. Although Bowie doesn’t nail Warhol’s accent–his English r’s creep in–he captures the artist’s odd way of mumbling out of one side of his mouth, as well as the diffidence that was his most striking characteristic. It’s an amazing performance, and the fact that Bowie’s fame as a musician already matched Warhol’s as a visual artist makes it mind-bending.
In 2006, Bowie’s played Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige.” In his remembrance the director Christopher Nolan wrote, “[David Bowie] seemed to be the only actor capable of playing the part. He had that requisite iconic status, and he was a figure as mysterious as Tesla needed to be.” After 30-year feature film career in which he famously played an alien, a soldier, a goblin king and a vampire, David Bowie’s last movie character, fittingly, was closest to himself: a genius of invention whose work is eternal.
April 25, 2015 § 1 Comment
Andrew Jarecki’s six-part series on the real estate heir and possible serial killer Robert Durst was a huge hit on HBO last month, and with good reason. It’s a meticulously researched, gripping, stranger-than-fiction story that builds suspense as it progresses. Structured like a thriller, “The Jinx” manages to be both long and exciting–no small feat for a documentary. Informationally dense documentaries usually seem longer than feature films of the same length, making audiences lose interest over time. But not “The Jinx,” whose best ratings were for its final episode.
Despite its success, however, “The Jinx” has certain problems in its style and structure. The latter will be discussed at length later. As for the former, the many re-enactments, though artfully filmed, borrow heavily from “CSI,” blurring the line between feature and documentary filmmaking. Take the opening credit sequence: a noir-ish montage of water, women, cars, falling bodies, palm trees and skylines, it evokes the Bond films visually and, like them, boasts a theme song. Because Jarecki and his producer/DP Marc Smerling previously made a feature about Durst and the unsolved disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen McCormack, viewers can be forgiven for wondering whether “The Jinx” is a documentary at all.
It is, but one with unusual beginnings. It was initiated not the filmmakers but by its subject Robert Durst, who sought them out in response to their feature about him, “All Good Things.” Durst’s aim was to tell his side of the story, which he thought the feature film did not. Through interviews, “Jinx” painstakingly recounts Durst’s life story, which includes at least two murders and two disappearances in which he was the prime suspect. But it also properly presents other points of view, not only through interviews, archival footage and stills but the aforementioned re-enactments.
The documentary’s structure is complicated, jumping back and forth over the decades. Episode 1 describes the October, 2001 murder of Morris Black, Durst’s neighbor when he was hiding out in Galveston, Texas. It also introduces Durst and Jarecki and the launch of the documentary project. Episode 2 involves Durst’s initial interview, his early life–including the suicide of his mother when he was seven–his marriage to Kathie, and her disappearance in 1982. Episode 3 tells the story of Susan Berman, a Los Angeles-based writer and close friend of Robert Durst’s who was his spokeswoman after Kathie’s disappearance. The daughter of a Las Vegas gangster, Berman had fallen on hard times when she was murdered in her Benedict Canyon home on Christmas Eve, 2000. Though Durst was seen in Northern California that week, he denied being in LA and was not charged. Episode 4 recounts Morris Black’s murder, for which Durst was tried and acquitted (by reason of self-defense), despite the fact that he admitted to cutting up Black’s body and dumping it in Galveston Bay. Episode 5, “Family Values,” contains Robert Durst’s fateful walk by the Durst offices in Times Square and a revealing interview with his nephew, Evan Kreeger, who deplores his family’s dissembling and expresses sympathy for the McCormack family. It culminates with Jarecki’s encounter with Douglas Durst, Robert’s younger brother and scion of the family, who stonewalled not only the filmmakers but prosecutors and police who investigated Kathie Durst’s disappearance. Episode 6 shows the long-delayed second interview with Robert Durst and the series’ stunning coda: his muttered apparent confession, “I killed them all, of course,” in the bathroom after the end of the interview. In a further truth-is-stranger-than-fiction event, Durst was arrested for the murder of Susan Berman on March 14th, the day before the episode aired, having fled to New Orleans with cash, guns and disguises.
Episode 6 is both great television and a documentary rule-breaker. The hot mike that produced Durst’s mutterings, which Jarecki said was left on accidentally when he went to the bathroom, is contentious; having conducted many interviews, I recall exactly none where a mike was inadvertently left on after the subject was finished. It’s clear that Jarecki was well aware of his subject’s tendency to think aloud: in Episode 4, during a break from the first interview, Durst repeats, “I did not knowingly, purposely lie.” That time, Durst’s lawyer cautioned him that the mike was on, but no one from Durst’s camp was present during the second interview.
Beyond Jarecki’s defense that the mike was left on accidentally, he claimed in the New York Times after the series aired that the confession wasn’t even discovered for a couple of years after the interview:
I don’t know if you’ve ever edited anything — things get loaded into the editing machine but not everything gets loaded. The sound recorder isn’t listening after a guy gets up and says he wants a sandwich. It often doesn’t get marked and get loaded. That didn’t get loaded for quite a while. We hired some new assistants and they were going through some old material. That was quite a bit later. Let me look at my list. It was June 12, 2014 [more than two years later].
As a documentary filmmaker who has edited (with my editor, Kate Johnson) many things, let me say that there has never been an instance where something didn’t get logged within a few days. The idea that the sequence was somehow overlooked for two years is simply incredible, particularly in light of the fact that there were only two interviews with Robert Durst, and that they formed the linchpin of the project.
During Episode 6, Jarecki and Smerling dispense with their observational role, becoming full-fledged actors in the Durst drama. The process actually begins in the previous chapter, when Jarecki buys a ticket to a charity dinner expressly to confront the evasive Douglas Durst, but the final episode finds him in full detective mode. He conceals in a safe deposit box the most damning piece of evidence against Durst to date–a letter addressed to Susan Berman in Durst’s hand that exactly matches the so-called cadaver note, which was sent anonymously to the Beverly Hills police by Berman’s murderer. At that point, Jarecki and Smerling decide not to inform the police about Durst’s note and apparently do not, according to a NYT interview, until “early 2013.”
Throughout Episode 6, Jarecki and Smerling manipulate the timeline, showing events out of sequence. Although no dates are given, Durst’s second interview appears to happen soon after, and in direct response to, his August 2013 arrest for violating a restraining order filed by Douglas Durst. In fact, the second interview took place in April, 2012, sixteen months earlier. Why does this matter? Because it’s much more dramatic for Jarecki to say that Durst is finally coming in for interview #2 because of the arrest rather than simply because he agreed to sit for two interviews. No dates are given for any of the times when Robert Durst appears on Jarecki’s camera, but the sequence of events appears to be:
1. First interview
2. Durst’s walk through Times Square (much later)
3. Durst’s arrest for violating the restraining order
4. Second interview (soon after)
In fact, the true sequence of events is:
1. First interview 12/2010
2. Durst’s walk through Times Square (soon afterward)
3. Second interview 4/2012
4. Durst’s arrest for violating the restraining order 8/2013
Durst’s arrest in New Orleans on March 14 for Susan Berman’s murder came only a day before the airing of Episode 6, at which point the line between filmmaking and real-time news events disappeared completely. “The Jinx” became a rare instance of must-see TV in a highly fragmented market, yet questions about the timeline surfaced immediately. The fact the change of sequence troubled viewers and critics alike proves that many people still expect documentaries to reflect reality, even if reality comes at the expense of drama.
Next time: The Death of Cinema Verite.
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.