Thursday, June 29, 2006


"Rises to the heights of mid-period Lana Turner," remarked Pauline Kael of an actress's performance.* It was in no way a compliment. Over the years Lana built and sustained a reputation as an actress whose personal life was far more compelling than any performance she ever gave. Like most Hollywood reputations, it was undeserved.

For such a lousy actress, Lana was in an awful lot of good movies, among them They Won't Forget (one of the most memorable bit roles of all time), Johnny Eager, Ziegfeld Girl, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Three Musketeers, as well as some campy but entertaining ones, including Peyton Place, Portrait in Black and Madame X. And then there are two the Siren and others would call genuinely great, The Bad and the Beautiful and Imitation of Life.

Lana's longtime pal Ava Gardner has a shorter list of still-watchable films, and is enjoying something of a revival. The Siren doesn't begrudge that to Gardner, who was one hell of a character. But hey, Lana was a good-time gal too, even marrying Artie Shaw before Ava did. (Perhaps Lana and Ava's bond was shared suffering. Shaw doesn't seem to have been much of a catch, ungallantly referring to Lana as an "airhead" in a late-life interview. For their part, both actresses strongly implied Shaw's performance talent was only musical.)

Of course there is a huge history of actresses who break into films based solely on their magical looks. Lana's distinction was to get a break based on how she filled a sweater. As she walked across a street to her doom in They Won't Forget, who could concentrate on the foreshadowing? Lana's breasts seemed to move independently of Lana, as an awestruck Mervyn LeRoy noted.

As much as the Siren wants to believe in universal sisterhood, there is no denying that dazzling beauty can make a woman off-putting to her own sex. But from the beginning Lana didn't arouse that kind of hostility from other women, instead suggesting the sort of goddess who would still be kind to the ugly duckling. Women liked her.

They could see that in real and reel life, Lana knew her beauty was her best card. Instead of playing that hand with icy hauteur, like Hedy Lamarr, Lana suggested a cheerful, but slightly sad, resignation to the ephemeral nature of her good luck. Sure, one day I'll awaken as a crone, she seemed to say; but in the meantime, I'm having one hell of a good time. In Ziegfeld Girl, why would anyone really want her to settle down with James Stewart's whining character? She's the only one of the girls who really seems to use stardom for all it's worth. She gets the men, the jewels, the adulation, then throws off the misfortunes visited upon her by the Breen Office, rises from her bed and proudly walks off into eternity.

In The Postman Always Rings Twice, probably the peak of Lana's looks if not her talent, the power turns to desperation. See her clinging to John Garfield, throwing every bit of her allure at him like a spear. Can't he see, for God's sake? Lana knows, she knows she's never going to get more beautiful and she sure as hell isn't going to get any smarter. She has to get away from Cecil Kellaway (Flickhead is right, that casting was bizarre), and Garfield's feckless character is unfortunately the only way out. When what she wants is murder, even Lana has to put some muscle into it. The result is that Lana's scenes of persuasion with Garfield are not subtle, but they are entirely true to a woman actually having to work on a man for the first time, after years of having them roll over and play dead.

Vincente Minnelli said he wanted Lana, not Jennifer Jones, for Madame Bovary, but was told by the censors that Lana would bring too much blatant sexuality to the story of adultery. The director had to wait to work with her, but with The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), he got Lana's best performance:

Lana was at the height of her career, one of the top sex symbols in films. Those who made easy judgments said that in being manufactured into a personality, one very important cog had been left out: a consuming talent. This to me was unfair.

I agreed with John Houseman's assessment of Lana's acting ability. 'On a long curve, she's never been capable of sustaining a whole picture as an actress,' he told me. 'But on the short curve she's very good.'

My challenge was to make her portrayal a series of short curves.

"A series of short curves;" clearly he understood her as few directors did. Lana's character is an actress haunted by a dead, brilliant father. But the character is also terrified that she is all beauty and no talent, which must have cut pretty close. Lana nails every scene, but the Siren's favorite is the sequence where Kirk Douglas turns her into an actress in a bizarre historical epic (obviously meant to evoke Gone with the Wind in scope if not plot, David O. Selznick being a loose model for Douglas's character). Here you have Vincente Minnelli coaxing a performance out of an insecure beauty, who is playing an insecure beauty having a performance coaxed out of her. Years later in his memoirs, I Remember It Well, Minnelli said his trick was to blame everyone except Lana for any retake. Darling, you were wonderful, but the lights weren't right, the sound man messed up, etc. By the end Lana was probably convinced she was the most competent person on set. It shows.

Seven years later Douglas Sirk managed the same feat in Imitation of Life. Before we move on to that masterpiece, though, we have to have "the paragraph." That's what Turner and her only child, Cheryl Crane, always called the celebrated episode that landed them both in court and gave them gossip immortality. Any piece on Lana, you see, has to have a paragraph about the death of Johnny Stompanato.

You could write a book, and a whopping big book at that, about Worthless Paramours of the Hollywood Glamor Queens. Maybe the Siren will one day, if she decides her psyche is strong enough to take the strain. In any such book Johnny Stompanato would take pride of place, and that would be the only time he ever came out ahead without a woman propping him up. He was a smalltime hood parlaying his loud, coarse good looks into something of a gigolo sideline. Lana, whose string of husbands was described by John Updike as "the seven dwarfs," never did have much taste in men, but here her very sanity seems to have deserted her. Presumably steamy interludes with Stompanato were punctuated by terrifying beatings. One night the teenage Cheryl, hearing her mother cry out and thinking Lana was being murdered, rushed downstairs and grabbed a knife. That knife wound up in Stompanato, though the story of precisely how will probably never convince everyone. Every once in a while Turner Classic Movies runs footage of Lana at the inquest, and she's believable, all right. The Siren doesn't think for a moment that Cheryl was (or is) covering for Mom. But does anyone, let alone a hardened tough, actually run into a knife?

Anyway, end paragraph. Those wanting a rundown on the aftermath, and Cheryl's later relationship with her mom, which stayed pretty warm despite the late unpleasantness, should turn to the wonderful fansite Lana Turner Online.

The Siren always enjoyed Scorsese's tribute to Lana's Postman entrance with Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull, since the later relationship with DeNiro vividly echos Lana/Stompanato. Even better is the restaurant scene in L.A. Confidential, although something doesn't ring quite true about the way the actress plays Lana. It seems closer to Lana's movie persona than what she may or may not have been like offscreen.

But by 1959, maybe it was hard to know the difference. Certainly the huge box office for Imitation of Life owed a lot to people thinking it was just that, as the plot has Lana's screen daughter Sandra Dee falling in love with mom's boyfriend. Lana's best moments, though, are early, before her character has become a walking hostess gown. The beach scene, where Lana's character of Lora Meredith first encounters Annie (Juanita Hall) and her daughter, is perfect. Check out Lana's reaction to hearing that the straight-haired, olive-complected little girl romping on the beach is Hall's daughter: surprise, then hasty erasure of that surprise, then gooey "understanding." You could put that clip in an online dictionary as a hyperlink from "well-meaning white."

In some ways the most difficult aspect of Turner's role is the early part of the movie, where Annie just sort of "naturally" slips into being a maid. Even in 1959, would the audience believe all black women automatically start bustling around a white woman's kitchen? Maybe not, but they sure believed the relief showed by Lana's character. She executes the pro forma protest at Annie's new role, but you see her relaxing more with each mundane task that her guest takes over. They are slipping into the roles society has laid out for them. Lana is far more comfortable having a black woman as a maid than sitting on a beach wondering why the woman's daughter looks white. The more Hall becomes a mammy figure, the more relaxed Lana gets.

Later, success brings a series of ever-more extravagant gowns, probably sanctioned by Lana herself since wardrobe approval was a glamor gal's most cherished privilege. They are perfect, though, for showing the encroaching artificiality of Lora Meredith's life. Lana's reactions get more stilted, as more and more Lora herself doesn't know when she's offstage and not playing a role she adapted long ago in a cold-water flat. As for Annie's daughter, played as an adult by Susan Kohner, Lana's understanding of her doesn't move beyond that first reaction on the beach--that is, not until the final moments of the film. Lana still doesn't know how to talk to the woman, but Kohner's stark grief has Lana really looking at her at last.

Any one of these movies would earn Lana a blog-a-thon, in the Siren's eyes. I haven't even touched on Lana as a sociology student (!!!) in love with gangster Johnny Eager, another role well worth checking out. And That Little Round-Headed Boy definitely has me wanting to see Somewhere I'll Find You, to check out Lana's comic timing.

*In case you want to know, Kael was talking about Candace Bergen in Carnal Knowledge.

Last night found the Siren ready to start throwing crockery, as her Internet connection is down for absolutely no good reason. She had forgotten that one of New York City's charms is definitely not Time Warner Cable. Please be patient, as the slobs at that company inform her they can't possibly send anyone for a few days. Mr. Campaspe has put up this post for her, but the Siren asks you to be patient with any roughness in the layout and the lack of links. She will come aboard as soon as possible to clean up and contribute to comments, but alas, it may be a while. Please share your thoughts on the piece anyway; it will give the Siren something to look forward to, aside from a long wait for the cable guy. See Flickhead, Coffee Coffee Coffee and That Little Round-Headed Boy (all listed on the sidebar) for more on the fabulous Lana.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Second Look at Sandra

Greetings, patient readers! The Siren and brood have finally landed in Brooklyn and gotten re-hooked to the virtual world. Jet-lag finally shaken, the Siren is gearing up for June 29's Lana Turner tribute.

By way of prelude, I am re-posting a piece I wrote after Sandra Dee died, since few people probably saw it at the time. Sandra Dee leads into Lana because, of course, they co-starred in two movies, one messy but enjoyable (Portrait in Black) and one classic, Imitation of Life.

Re-reading this obit makes the Siren realize that sadness and indignation over the sorry trajectory of Dee's life meant she neglected the films a bit. Not much there to explain exactly why I have always been so fond of her. And I am not sure I can explain it, entirely. Some stars you just connect with on a level that has little to do with talent, though I do believe Dee had that.

"So sweet she caused cavities," sniped the writers of an otherwise highly sympathetic essay in The Bad and the Beautiful, an assessment the Siren finds consistent with most critics, but bizarrely unfair. The actress was not sweet, but rather serene. Most of Dee's movies had her as the calm, centered, preternaturally mature youngster surrounded by adults either ditzy (The Reluctant Debutante, Come September), preoccupied (Romanoff and Juliet, Gidget) or downright malevolent (Portrait in Black, A Summer Place).

She did arouse a protective instinct, with her doll-like face seeming to indicate that she needed to be sheltered from life in general and ravening, louche men in particular. As the movies unfolded you generally learned that Dee could take care of herself. Adults flailed around, plotting murder, getting divorced, trying to marry her off or lock her up. Sandra always turned out all right in the end. To a teenager, which I was when I discovered Dee's movies, Sandra's superiority to her elders is entirely in keeping with the way you perceive the world, and reassuring. Her life was considerably less so.

So anyway, slightly edited in hindsight, here's my re-posted piece on Sandra.

Sandra Dee died Feb. 20. A hard-luck story in death as in life, she died on the same day Hunter S. Thompson blew his brains out. Pity the priest of Gonzo, ran the snide asides, for having to share the obit page with Gidget. Mind you, it had been years since Thompson wrote anything that matched his early glories (his last piece to show much of the old brilliance was, ironically, an obituary--of Richard Nixon). In the end he was every bit the has-been Dee was, but despite his long decline, repellent personality and senseless check-out he received one thing she did not: respect.

Certain elements appear in the biography of a studio-system actress with appalling frequency. Dee's life had them all. Start, as we so often do, with the ghastly stage mother. Mary Douvan was shoving her daughter in front of cameras almost as soon as she noticed the little girl was beautiful. Dee's first modeling gig was for Girl Scouts Magazine. Impatient to start maximizing the Sandra returns, her mother started adding two years to the girl's age when she was four years old, and that lie kept going until Dee's career had long ended.

What with modeling jobs and parading the child before talent scouts, there was little time to notice the small personal details, like the fact that Mary's second husband was sexually abusing Sandra.

Some Hollywood victims of sexual abuse go flamboyantly to the bad, grabbing at alcohol or pills, flinging themselves at men only marginally better than their abusers. Dee, for her part, continued to be a good girl at home and on the set. Her success grew, as she tried to disappear. Anorexia began in adolescence and continued, off and on, until her death. In the 1990s Dee recalled days when all she ate was a head of lettuce.

Knowing Dee's background gives all those sunny movies some pronounced shadows. You start noticing how almost all her characters are trying so hard to please an older figure. The horrific mother in A Summer Place, for example, who forces Dee to submit to a gynecological exam--a rape, in effect--to see if she's still a virgin after a night with Troy Donahue. I wonder how Mary and Eugene Douvan felt watching that one in a darkened movie theater. To a viewer in 2005, the scene is mawkish hokum. Read about Dee's pathetic teenage years, and it becomes a shattering tragedy.

For those who love Imitation of Life, without question the best movie Dee ever made, the story of maid Juanita Hall and daughter Susan Kohner gives the movie its depth and sadness. Those two face the real agony of racial bigotry, while Lana Turner and Dee, as her daughter, deal only with the imitation problems of the wealthy and blonde. Yet Dee's performance deserves more consideration than that. Her confrontation with Turner, where she snaps at Turner to "stop acting" and asks for a little autonomy, echos every woman who ever looked at a neurotic, inadequate mother and decided, finally, to move on.

The year after Imitation's release Dee made Come September, met Bobby Darin on the set and later married him. Her film career began in 1957, and after 1963 it was all but over. The future held multiple miscarriages, probably linked to her eating disorder; one son, Dodd, born in 1961; a divorce from Darin in 1967; and his early death from congestive heart failure in 1973. Alcoholism followed as Dee became a near shut-in. She had never had much of a social life, anyway; people who form their parents' main source of income seldom do. "I've never had any friends," she said in 1959, "but it's like strawberry shortcake. If you've never had it, you don't miss it."

Dee, tied so tightly to Eisenhower's America as the ideal teen--the perfect date, the perfect daughter--found some acting jobs, but never could revive her career. The only thing that could put her back in the public eye was when Stockard Channing donned a blonde wig and held her up to derision with the song "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" in Grease. Dee always said she thought it was funny.

You must excuse the Siren if she withholds her pity for Thompson and saves it for Sandra, whose troubles were far less of her own making.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Paris and Hooligans

Greetings! At last the Siren manages to corral the computer and post some random thoughts from Paris. The city has had wonderful weather. We are going every day to the local park, which has a carousel the kids are obsessed with. At this point the price of all their rides adds up to several visits to EuroDisney, but when the sun is shining and you just watched your son smell roses and your daughter chase a pigeon right under a bench occupied by two canoodling, then very startled Parisians, you can't really get stingy with the Manege.

Twin-wrangling being what it is, the Siren hasn't done much moviegoing, but she did take in one film last week, Hooligans (or Green Street Hooligans, as it was called when released in the States last October). The Siren expected this to be a dark meditation on the nature of male violence, in the vein of Raging Bull perhaps, though she didn't expect that film's genius from relative novice director Lexi Alexander. It is something much odder, though--a sort of London-set Western. It embodies what the Siren considers the universal theme of Westerns, namely, "who's the man here?"

In this case, unfortunately, the evolving man is supposed to be delicate, ghost-eyed Elijah Wood, a good enough actor but about as physically potent as the Siren's aforementioned rose-sniffing three-year-old. So when, late in the movie, Wood gets clocked with a set of brass knuckles, and gets back on his feet, it is a bit of a strain on the old willing suspension of disbelief.

The movie concerns Wood, a Harvard-educated journalist who, via a series of wholly unbelievable events, becomes involved with a "firm," or gang of English soccer hooligans, and becomes a part of this testosterone-fueled band of brothers. Fused by the camaraderie of violence as well as incipient alcoholism, they run around London finding other firms to fight. Handsome Charlie Dunnam, a new face to the Siren, plays the leader of the Green Street firm, and has a strong presence and charisma in a role that requires some dizzying pace changes. In fact, all of the actors acquit themselves pretty well, even Wood, who makes you believe that he starts to enjoy all this fighting. (What you don't believe is that the firm doesn't end each engagement by wiping him off the pavement with a sponge.)

And the movie seems to give a fairly accurate picture of the world of the firms, or so the Siren assumes. She isn't very familiar with this scene, hasn't seen Alan Clarke's The Firm and holds a grudge against soccer anyway, since the French victory in the European Cup put a damper on her honeymoon. (Although she did get to see a police formation charge a group of particulary rowdy fans, so it added a bit of sociological interest.)

The main trouble with the movie is that it wants to romanticize the deep bonds between these men, while simultaneously condemning the waste and pain that are natural byproducts of spending your free time beating up people for a remarkably silly reason. Alexander wants the Green Street guys to be the hard-fighting, essentially decent Sons of Katie Elder, but the scene that rings most true to what these guys are really like plays more like something from Romper Stomper. It's a truly frightening moment, when the leader of another firm smashes a man's face repeatedly into a table, because the guy's girlfriend was laughing too loud.

All in all, not the greatest choice in cinematic outings, but it was playing close and at a time that worked well with jet lag and toddler bedtimes. The French subtitles added a lot, however, and I don't mean just the discovery that French doesn't have quite as many variations on a single four-letter word as English does. Now I know the French word for the English "grass" (or snitch), "mouchard." And "find out what's happening?" Mettre quelq'un au parfum. Another entry for my perfume at the movies series, alors!