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.
Patrolled By Coyote
May 15, 2013 § 3 Comments
Recently I was driving through Hancock Park, my former neighborhood, when I noticed a house with a sign reading “Armed Guard on Premises.” Although break-ins are common there–I was a victim twice–this seemed an extreme measure, so I asked my niece who lives nearby about it. “They just say that,” she said. “There’s no armed guard.”
Now I live in Hollywoodland, where a steady stream of tourists headed for the Hollywood Sign passes my house each day and coyotes patrol by night. Actually, coyotes patrol by day as well, as these photos, taken on a recent midday–attest. This is the big-eared coyote that appeared in a post a few months ago, and these days I see it often. At night, I often hear coyotes hunting vermin on the hillside above my house, a circle-of-life function that goes naturally with nocturnal lurking.
The Lessons of 4/29: How the LA Riots Transformed the Korean-American Community
May 6, 2012 § 4 Comments
Last week’s anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots brought a flood of programming, all of which helped to bring the chaos of 1992 into historical perspective. Like others who lived through the events, I found myself remembering things I had suppressed during the intervening years, when moving on seemed more important than dwelling on the violence and terror of those days. One vaguely recalled memory, so frequently overshadowed by the Rodney King verdict, was the Riots’ other inciting incident: the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, a Korean convenience store owner, in March of 1991. Although Soon claimed self-defense in shooting the girl, an African-American high school student she had accused of stealing a carton of orange juice, she was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter in November of that year. The jury recommended a 16-year prison term, but Judge Joyce Karlin sentenced Soon to 5 years probation, with 400 of community service and a $500 fine. Outrage over the absurdly lenient sentence set the stage for violence. The King verdict the following April was like a match tossed on a pool of gasoline, and the city erupted.
Not surprisingly, Korean-owned businesses were heavily targeted by rioters. These included not only convenience stores in South Los Angeles but stores throughout downtown Los Angeles and Koreatown, particularly along Western Avenue from Pico to Beverly. At the time, I lived on the eastern edge of Hancock Park, at 6th and Bronson. Six blocks away, a half-dozen fires raged at strip malls along Western, including the one pictured above. Many stores that escaped the fires were vandalized and looted. Those of us who lived nearby were under curfew for several days, during which National Guard troops arrived in tanks. Heavily armed, they patrolled the streets and used the Masonic Temple on Wilshire as a garrison.
Amid the strangeness of this quasi-war zone, we resumed our daily lives. The kids went back to school and everyone adopted a keep-calm-carry-on attitude. One day several weeks later, my son and I visited a shoe store in the mini-mall at Wilshire and Grammercy, one that carried all the latest sneakers. It was owned by a young Korean couple, and the husband had gone out of his way to be friendly and kind to us. Now we were shocked to see him emerge from the stock room with a bruised face and broken arm, injuries suffered at the hands of looters. He seemed remarkably unembittered, but the business never recovered and closed six months later.
Among the commentary I heard last week, a statement by a Korean-American professor had particular resonance. Before the Riots, she said, Koreans immigrants in Los Angeles always referred to themselves as Koreans. Afterwards they began to refer to themselves as Korean-Americans, seeing themselves as part of the multi-cultural fabric of the city instead of a separate community. Though I hadn’t registered the shift, I remember a series of post-Riots meetings between Korean business owners and members of the African-American community, in which long-simmering cultural differences were discussed for the first time. One source of friction was the Korean store owners’ practice of putting their customers’ change on the counter instead of in their hands. That their customers universally regarded the practice as rude and racist was a revelation to the store owners, who were simply doing what they had done in Korea.
20 years later, it’s hard to describe the mood of distrust that simmered before the Riots, because it no longer exists. This is not to say that the different racial and ethnic communities live in perfect harmony: resentments still abound, but in a much more open and integrated atmosphere. If post-Riots Los Angeles had a civic motto, it would be We’re All In This Together.
For the Korean community, the Riots–still referred to as 4:29–were a shattering experience, but they also served to speed the inevitable and necessary process of assimilation. At the end of my block in Hancock Park, there stood an apartment building that was entirely occupied by Korean immigrant families. As I walked by with my dog each evening, I could hear–amid the sounds of household chores and music practice–kids screaming as their fathers administered stiff corporal punishments. As the ’90s went on, the music lessons continued unabated, but I no longer heard the beatings. Like the bullying my son endured at the hands of his Korean classmates, such punishment was a thing of the past.
Hollywoodland and Hancock Park: Two Silent-Era Los Angeles Neighborhoods, Reunited in “The Artist”
December 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
Just over a year ago, I was drawn out of my house by the dreamlike appearance of vintage cars–and one 1920s bus–on Beachwood Drive. A PA informed me they were here for a French silent film about the advent of sound. Good luck with that, I thought. The sequence took about an hour to shoot, after which I wrote about it: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/back-to-the-roaring-twenties-briefly-on-beachwood-drive/ Then, because I assumed I’d never see the finished film, I put the episode out of my mind.
The other night, however, I saw the film. Called “The Artist,” it premiered last spring at Cannes, where its lead actor, Jean Dujardin, deservedly won the Best Actor award. Harvey Weinstein is propelling it towards the Academy Awards. The concensus of the audience I was in was charming. As a friend of mine said, “Can a dog win an Oscar? Because that one should.”
But back to the Beachwood sequence: after an establishing shot of the Hollywoodland Sign, we see the cloche-hatted heroine, Peppy Miller, riding the bus down Beachwood Drive, north of the Gates. Although it’s unlikely that an undiscovered starlet would have lived in Hollywoodland, a neighborhood of single-family houses with no rental units, the bus is historically accurate, except that the real one was private. During the 1920s, Hollywoodland ran a jitney up and down Beachwood Drive that took residents as far as Franklin Avenue, where there was a trolley stop . The jitney provided essential transportation in those days of single-car households, not only for non-drivers but for women whose husbands took the car to work.
The use of Beachwood Drive also recalls some of the early films emulated by “The Artist.” During the Silent Era, Beachwood often was used for driving shots, while Larchmont Blvd., four miles to the south, was used for pedestrian shots.
Though Larchmont doesn’t appear in “The Artist,” its surrounding neighborhood frequently does. Hancock Park–more specifically, the deluxe subdistrict of Windsor Square–is the location of both George Valentin’s and (once she hits the big time) Peppy Miller’s houses. In the trailer, Windsor Square appears at the 2:10 mark:
Again, the location is apt, if slightly anachronistic. In the mid-teens, as Hollywood grew congested with traffic and movie studios, film stars began moving south to Hancock Park, then a brand new residential neighborhood. Among those who bought houses there were John Garfield, W.C. Fields and Harold Lloyd. But by the late twenties, when “The Artist” begins, most actors actually had migrated to Beverly Hills, a planned community created, unlike the snobby and patrician Hancock Park, for movie folk. Yet for Silent stars, Hancock Park was the original aspirational neighborhood, and its Mediterranean mansions and spacious front lawns inspired similar versions in Beverly Hills.
For me, a former resident of Hancock Park and current resident of Hollywoodland, “The Artist” stirred up feelings of recognition, nostalgia (both personal and cinematic) and delight. Along with “Hugo,” “The Artist” looks back to show not only what film was, but what it should be–and so often isn’t. More on that, and “Hugo,” in a future post.
Harold Lloyd Lived Here
June 5, 2009 § 6 Comments
Harold Lloyd was a Silent Era superstar whose 200+ films outearned those of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, his competitors in comedy. He invented a quintessential American character, an Everyman in round glasses whose encounters with cars, pretty girls and technology were endlessly compelling. People who draw a blank at his name have seen his most famous stunt, in which he hangs off a skyscraper from the hands of a huge clock in “Safety Last.” (In Hollywood, the scene is memorialized on the side of the Best Western on Franklin Avenue, alongside the warning, “Last Cappuccino before the 101.”)
A handsome young actor from Nebraska who came to Hollywood in the teens, Lloyd teamed up with the director Hal Roach to make such Silent classics as “The Kid,” “Grandma’s Boy,” and “Safety Last.” He entered the Talkies with a huge hit, “Welcome Danger,” (written by Felix Adler, profiled below) in 1929.
Unlike many movie stars of his generation, he was financially shrewd, owning the rights to most of his movies and investing in real estate in a new made-for-actors tract development called Beverly Hills. By the close of the Jazz Age, Lloyd owned his own movie studio (the site of which he later sold to the Mormons for their Los Angeles Temple) and was an extremely wealthy man. He weathered the Crash of ’29 and continued to act in, as well as direct and produce, films and radio shows.
Early in his career, when he was star but not a tycoon, Harold Lloyd lived in this Italianate house in the exclusive Windsor Square neighborhood of Hancock Park.
The house still stands, an eyesore in a neighborhood transformed by 20 years of incessant renovation. I lived around the corner for 16 years and walked my dog (and after he died, another) by the house every day, longing for the time when it would be restored. In another city, there would be a plaque on it that read, “Harold Lloyd lived here.” But not in Los Angeles.
Throughout the ’90s, the house continued its decline. Outside there were dead trees and a dead lawn. Dead cars were parked in the driveway. The only things that thrived were weeds. Passersby showed their displeasure by turning the grounds into a public toilet for their dogs and, apparently, themselves.
When her dog turned up a mouthful of human feces, one of my neighbors reached out the people who have owned and lived in the house for two generations. They agreed to employ a gardener. He cut the weeds and hedges to a manageable level, sprinkled some grass seed and turned on the feeble old sprinklers to irrigate them. That was the sum of the improvements, such as they were. After the husband died, his rusting van was left for years the driveway as a kind of memorial.
These pictures were taken yesterday:
As for Harold Lloyd, his story could hardly have had a better outcome. In 1926, he began building a magnificent new home on 16 acres in Beverly Hills. Called Greenacres, the 44-room mansion was based on the Florentine Villa Gamberaia. Here’s a link to pictures: http://www.haroldlloyd.com/news/featurette.asp
Inside the house were 16 bathrooms, a pipe organ and a theater with a 35mm projection booth. Outside there was an Olympic-size swimming pool, a clock tower, a child-sized cottage with electricity and running water, and extensive gardens. There were greenhouses, stables, a 9-hole golf course, a reservoir and a farm. Lloyd and his wife, his co-star Mildred Davis, raised three children as well as a grandchild at Greenacres, which was staffed by 15 servants and 16 gardeners. They lived in a manner that defined the word swell.
In addition to acting and producing, Lloyd became an accomplished still photographer, taking beautiful portraits of a nude Bettie Page and a clothed Marilyn Monroe. He celebrated Christmas in spectacular fashion, lashing several huge evergreens together to make a single monster Christmas tree, which he strung with thousands of ornaments. One year he purchased the entire Christmas display at Saks, tree included, to augment Greenacres’. Meanwhile, his compound tree became more and more opulent. When the project became too vast to disassemble, Lloyd fireproofed the thing and celebrated Christmas all year long.
He died of cancer at 78, in 1971. Greenacres was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, after its grounds were subdivided and the estate reduced to six acres. The mansion, however, is intact and renovated. Its current owner is supermarket tycoon/ex-Bill Clinton bachelor buddy Ron Burkle, who apparently enjoys Greenacres just as much, if in rather different style, than Lloyd did.
I’m sure Harold Lloyd is watching over his beloved Greenacres from an even greater paradise. As for his starter house in Hancock Park, I’m praying for a gut renovation before the place falls down, followed by a lavish landscaping job. And after that, a plaque with his name on it.
You must be logged in to post a comment.