Tag Archives: Hollywood

“I’m not beautiful”: Audrey Hepburn at the National Portrait Gallery

16 Jul

Catalogue_coverIt’s telling that Audrey Hepburn, subject of a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and one of the world’s most photographed and adored women, did not think of herself as beautiful.  Her son Luca Dotti said recently that the best Audrey could say about her looks was that she had “a good mixture of defects. She thought she had a big nose and big feet, and she was too skinny and not enough breast. She would look in the mirror and say, ‘I don’t understand why people see me as beautiful.’”

If even Audrey Hepburn can’t see herself as beautiful, where does that leave modern women, with another half a century behind them of commercial propaganda pushing unrealistic beauty standards? But what’s interesting about the exhibition is how Hepburn used what she had. Seeing so many portraits of her by so many of the world’s top photographers, you begin to notice a pattern. She holds her head up, to diminish her nose; elongates her neck; uses her ballet-dancer-trained poise to graceful effect.

“She was very much in control of her own image,” the exhibition’s curator, Helen Trompeteler, told me when I interviewed her for Where London magazine. “Edith Head [the celebrated Hollywood costume designer and model for The Incredibles’ Edna “E” Mode] talked of fittings with her which took hours – Hepburn knew exactly what worked for her and how she wanted to appear. She worked closely with photographers, knew what angle was best for her, saw all the contact sheets.”

Where LondonBut there’s more to it than that. Because she didn’t feel she could rely just on her looks, Hepburn always worked hard, and was, quite simply, nice to people. “Obviously she was extremely talented and beautiful,” says Trompeteler, “but she was modest about her achievements. My personal fascination with her is that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the roles of women were changing so dramatically, she was able to respond to that and create a distinct look for herself – that timeless Hepburn look that has so much currency today.”

Hepburn ended her days working tirelessly for disadvantaged children around the world on behalf of UNICEF, a charity which had helped her family, along with many others, in a Holland starved and ravaged by the second world war. Did the film-going public fall in love with her just for her looks, or for her personality? I think the latter.

The photographer and essayist Cecil Beaton, who later won Academy Awards for his costume designs on Gigi and My Fair Lady, attempted to convey her appeal in an article in Vogue in 1954: “She is like a portrait by Modigliani, where the various distortions are not only interesting in themselves but make a completely satisfying composite… She is a wistful child of a war-chided era, and the shadow thrown across her youth underlines even more its precious evanescence. But if she can reflect sorrow, she seems also to enjoy the happiness life provides for her with such bounty.”

Or as Cary Grant more succinctly said, after filming Charade, “All I want for Christmas is another movie with Audrey Hepburn.”

Pecs appeal: what The Guest reveals about Hollywood’s new stripping sexism

15 Sep

Ye gods, but Dan Stevens is gorgeous in new movie The Guest. You hardly recognise him from Downton Abbey: the puppy fat is replaced by cheekbones, the floppy fringe by manly stubble, the limpid blue eyes are now focused laser beams of energy. He needs to be gorgeous: the more interesting first half of the movie, before things go pear-shaped and daft-thrillery, is all about how he wins over a family, one by one – the mother through sensitivity, the father through beer, the young son through help with bullies. But does he really have to win over the 20-year-old daughter by stepping from a steamy bathroom in the skimpiest of towels? Those pecs! Those lats! Those abs! She swoons.

If Stevens becomes a star on the back of this, and he surely will, his personal trainer deserves 10%, along with his agent and manager. In fact, it’s a little surprising there’s not yet an Oscar category for that. And what’s interesting is how thoroughly gratuitous nudity in Hollywood has now been turned on its head.

Right into the ‘90s it was almost impossible to be an actress and not get your kit off, unless you were Meryl Streep. It’s why columnist Julie Burchill used to call acting a form of legalised prostitution. Even the respected auteur Robert Altman pressurised Greta Scacchi (unsuccessfully) to show off her celebrated bust in The Player, despite a prior agreement: “When it came to the day of the shoot,” Scacchi later recalled, “he told me ‘Get yourself on the set, take your knickers off and do what you’re paid to do.’” Demi Moore was paid a record $12 million to strip off in Striptease. Halle Berry is rumoured to have been given an extra $500,000 to show her boobs in Swordfish, though she denies any extra fee.

How times have changed in the new millennium. When Alice Eve gratuitously stripped in front of Kirk in Star Trek Into Darkness, the backlash was huge, to the point where the scriptwriter apologised – and even then she only undressed to bra and pants. There is no expectation now that beautiful and talented actresses such as Jennifer Lawrence will have to get naked to get ahead. It’s one reason, aside from righteous indignation at the appalling invasion of privacy, that the recent hacking of nude celebrity pictures has aroused such interest: in the ‘90s, it would have been nothing people hadn’t seen before, on screens 40 feet high.

No such reticence applies to the male physique, and I blame Brad Pitt. When he took his shirt off in Thelma & Louise, revealing the washboard abs beneath the cheeky grin, it opened the doors for equal opportunities sexism. Since then, Matt Damon, Tobey McGuire, Will Smith, Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy, Hugh Jackman, Tom Cruise, Gerard Butler, Ryan Reynolds, Channing Tatum… actually, it would be quicker to make a list of actors who haven’t had to bulk up and strip off.

And now, finally, there are signs that the more insidious sexism in Hollywood may gradually and grudgingly be coming to an end. It’s long been argued by movie execs, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, that films with women in the lead roles don’t make money. None, therefore, were made… so none made money. Bridesmaids in comedy, and in the blockbuster market The Hunger Games and Gravity (though its director initially had to fight the studio to get them to okay a female lead), have demonstrated the fallacy, and execs are, according to the New York Times, taking note.

There’s still a ways to go, and still a big disparity in pay cheques. But, in liberating Hollywood’s women, must we objectify Hollywood’s men? How long before aspiring male actors are simply reading for the part of “Hunky Boyfriend: must be prepared for Shower Scene”?

Before Hollywood there was “Dog Kennel Hillywood”, birthplace of British film

2 Sep
Gaumont film still

In How Percy Won The Beauty Competition (1909), director/star Alf Collins runs straight past the Gaumont stage, left. The sign is Photoshopped by the Friends of Dog Kennel Hill Wood.

At the turn of the 20th century, Hollywood had only just become a place: it was incorporated as a municipality in 1903. It was just starting to become an idea, as film-makers headed west for the perpetual sunlight, and also to avoid being sued by Thomas Edison who held movie-making patents on the East Coast. But down here in South London, we were already the real deal, a regular Dream Factory. The UK branch of the Gaumont Film Company was founded in Camberwell’s Dog Kennel Hill in 1898. Its head, Alfred Bromhead, was soon boasting in Magic Lantern magazine of getting through 80,000 feet of film a week. This was, as local historians are now calling it, Dog Kennel Hillywood.

Gaumont still exists – it is the oldest surviving film company – but nothing remains of its early Dog Kennel Hill studio. I lived here for more than a decade, in this birthplace of the British film industry, and didn’t even realise it. The early Gaumont never even had a building: until better electric lighting was invented, they had to use natural light, so they shot interiors on a couple of roofless walls set up on a stage in a field. For exteriors, they shot guerrilla-style in the surrounding streets.

More than 500 shorts were filmed here between 1904 and 1912. Of the 30 that survive in the BFI archives, 14 were exhumed by the Friends of Dog Kennel Hill Wood and given a one-off outdoor screening on Saturday night, in the very place where they were first shot. Most have not been seen on the big screen in over a century.

Poster for Gaumont screeningThe comperes, dressed in Edwardian clothes, kicked off this special night with the unpromisingly titled Adventures of a Roll of Lino (1907), which turned out to be slapstick of the kind we’re all familiar with from the much later films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy: a chap carrying a long roll of lino on his shoulder keeps turning round carelessly, whacking passers-by, with escalatingly hilarious consequences. Clichéd stuff, until you remember Gaumont did it first.

The director of these films, and star of several, was music-hall veteran Alf Collins – “an auteur before his time, and our equivalent of DW Griffiths,” says film historian Tony Fletcher of the Cinema Museum, with a dash of overstatement. Collins pioneered the use of close-up, chase scenes (he would corral drinkers from local pubs as extras with the promise of a free pint), and that peculiarly British obsession with dressing up in drag. His handbaggings could easily have inspired that Monty Python sketch in which the Batley Townswomen’s Guild re-enact the Battle of Pearl Harbour.

How Percy Won The Beauty Competition (1909) shows Alf dressed, as so often, in drag, but this time playing a man playing a woman, rather just simply playing a woman. Deep. The BFI has made this one available on YouTube. Pause it at 3.56 minutes, as the thwarted female contestants chase Alf through a field of sheep, and you can see the Gaumont ‘studio’ and crew on the left.

Perhaps the most extraordinary film shown was It Was A Nice Quiet Morning (1906). After watching a number of silent shorts, brilliantly accompanied in a live improvisation by pianist Neil Brand who was also seeing these for the first time, it was astonishing to hear dialogue issue forth from the screen – just as it must have astonished contemporary audiences. Yes, this was a talkie, fully 23 years before The Jazz Singer revolutionised the film industry.  

Gaumont went on to construct the UK’s first purpose-built studio building, in Lime Grove, West London in 1915. By the ‘30s it had bought out its parent French company and become the UK’s largest studio. But in that first decade of the 20th century, in “Dog Kennel Hillywood”, it made history on a simple Field of Dreams. And on Saturday night, as benign nitrate ghosts flickered back to silvery life above us after a century’s undisturbed rest, we were sitting right there in it.

Home again, or Homeland? What Hollywood tells us about Saving Bowe Bergdahl

3 Jun
Homeland

Spot the difference: Damian Lewis in Homeland…

Bowe Bergdahl

… and Bowe Bergdahl in captivity

I was asked this morning by the International Business Times to explain the historic release of POW Bowe Bergdahl in terms of films and TV. It turns out to be a surprisingly good way of making sense of a complex topic. My piece starts:

<<When President Obama announced the release, after five long years, of America’s only prisoner of war in Afghanistan, he must have imagined the credits rolling and the music swelling (perhaps Hans Zimmer’s Leave No Man Behind from Black Hawk Down) over a happy Hollywood ending. Saving Private RyanLone SurvivorArgo, even Forrest Gump – these are just a few of the movies that have seared into our consciousness the idea that no sacrifice is too great in order to rescue a fallen comrade.

It even fuels the plot of two Star Trek movies. “Logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one,” says Spock, when he sacrifices himself in The Wrath of Khan. But The Search for Spock turns this on its head, when Kirk explains the noble human instinct that caused him to risk his ship and all its crew for his second in command: “The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”>>

But then the story gets murky… click here to read the rest at International Business Times.

LSF #9: Stuart Hazeldine on writing Blade Runner 2, and running naked in traffic

6 Nov
Image

Big in Hollywood: British screenwriter Stuart Hazeldine

Of all the “how-to” seminars at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, the one I got the biggest kick from was The Epic Spec: How to EXPLODE on to the Hollywood Scene. It was given by British writer Stuart Hazeldine (left), and though his IMDB credits may not seem that impressive, that’s a lesson in itself. The regular money comes from optioned spec scripts that remain unproduced, and rewrites and polishes that may never generate a credit.

So you won’t see this on IMDB, but he’s recently written the screenplay for Paradise Lost, which got him Spielberg’s attention to write his (now dropped) Moses film Gods and Kings, which got him Michael Mann’s attention to write Agincourt.

Not bad.

Here’s Stuart’s advice on starting out in Hollywood: “Sometimes, to get noticed, you have to take your clothes off and run in the traffic.”

He means this metaphorically. I hope.

And here’s how he did it: he wrote a sequel to Blade Runner. No one asked him to do it. He didn’t have the rights to do it. But he loved the movie and had an idea of where it should go next, so he did it. And because every Hollywood exec knew Blade Runner, and wanted to know what happened next, that was the spec script they all asked for.

Stuart did the same with Aliens, and that even got recommended to the people actually making the third Aliens movie, though for legal reasons they couldn’t read his version at the time. Afterwards, when the film was made, Stuart met with the exec responsible… and told him he’d screwed it up and his script was better. The exec was not amused. But it did add to Stuart’s notoriety in Hollywood.

With hindsight, Stuart wouldn’t exactly recommend these routes to success. Knowing better now, he advises taking an existing property that’s out of copyright but which everyone has heard of. Think of The Taming of the Shrew remade as 10 Things I Hate About You; the Theseus myth updated as The Hunger Games; and all those fairytale reboots like Jack The Giant Slayer or Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Stuart pitched Paradise Lost (which I always thought, when studying it for A-Level, would make a great graphic novel – at the time I thought it was unfilmable, but special effects may have caught up) to the studios as “sci-fi set in the past”, or as “Genesis meets Lord of the Rings”. Milton’s epic poem describes the archangel Lucifer’s war against God which led him to become the Devil – “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven” is, as Stuart rightly says, the keyline. I hope it gets made; I would love to see it.

A final few pieces of advice from Stuart. A) “The buying seasons in LA are roughly from the end of Sundance till the beginning of Cannes, and from Labor Day to Thanksgiving; these are the best times to go out and pitch.” B) “Think of yourself as your own agent. If you have an agent, they can be your support team, but ultimately you have to look after your own career.” C) “Write what you are passionate about. I do think passion is detectable on the page. I’ve written things I thought other people would want, and they didn’t sell.”

Now, whatever way you can find to take your clothes off and run in traffic, go do it.