Icon Versus Actor

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All the talk this week over James Dean’s likeness has given me much to think about regarding how certain actors become icons of pop culture. For those who aren’t aware, it was announced earlier this week that Dean’s likeness would be used, recreated via CGI and unused footage, for an upcoming film, in which he’d be a secondary character.

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Forgetting the debate over CGI resurrections, I’ve always wondered if Dean, had he lived, would’ve continued to be as great an actor as he was in his sole three movies. The performances he gave were mesmerizing and ushered in a new form of acting that represented the disenfranchised youth at its most modern. But were those performances just a phase? Would Dean have been able to expand beyond his performances of teenage angst?

I often wonder the same thing about Grace Kelly. Like Dean, her career was short-lived – but just like Dean, the circumstances of her life transformed her into a cultural icon. From her debut in High Noon and onwards, Kelly made a trope of her roles. She was the cool, icy blonde. Elegant, but also distant, and it would take the course of the film for someone (usually a man) to melt that icy heart.

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Grace Kelly in High Society (1956)

Kelly was phenomenal in all these roles. The way in which she slowly gets roped into Jimmy Stewart’s neuroses in Rear Window pays off in a thrilling climax; the charm and wit she portrays in To Catch a Thief shows that she could very well be the next Cary Grant, as fashionable, witty, and charming; then there is High Society, she is the ultimate ice queen in this 1956 picture – three men fall for her, but her own haughty personality makes it impossible for her to see past her own upturned nose.

Then there is Kelly the style icon. Last year, I wrote a post about the Kelly bag. All the Technicolor gowns, all the Edith Head wardrobe, all the splendor of her composition and composure – all of these things create a fashion icon who catapults herself further into the limelight when she becomes a real-life Princess. Is it any coincidence that the very same year she married Prince Ranier, Kelly played a European princess in The Swan?

Grace Kelly made eleven pictures between 1951 to 1956. (For reference, Daniel Day-Lewis made seven pictures between 1997 and 2017.) There is something to like about Kelly in every single one of her pictures, and there’s always something to dissect, but I do wonder if Kelly had continued making films into the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, would she have blossomed beyond the ice-queen roles?

Many of her peers certainly did. Audrey Hepburn, who began with gamine roles, found movies that allowed her to expand her acting potential, branching out into pictures as anti-Hepburn as Wait Until Dark. Kelly’s favorite actress, Ingrid Bergman, found unexpected freedom in Italy with neorealism before returning to Hollywood with a new kind of intensity as seen in Murder on the Orient Express.

In the early days, actors were known for playing a certain role. John Wayne the Cowboy, Jimmy Stewart the All-American, Katharine Hepburn the Career Girl. But actors of Kelly’s generation wanted to study their craft, use those skills in theater companies and apply them to the silver screen. Kelly went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with Jason Robards and Don Rickles, her uncle was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and she acted in nearly 60 live television programs. (James Dean also began in television anthology shows.)

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Andy Warhol, Grace Kelly, 1984

In this classic film buff’s humble opinion, with all the training and cultivated talent that Grace Kelly had, she could have indeed grown beyond the roles of her short career had she continued. She had the talent, the drive, and the professionalism that would’ve made her the next Ingrid Bergman. Her status as a cultural icon may have replaced her humanity with symbolism and discussions of mass media consumption, but it would be foolish to call Kelly’s body of work insubstantial. There is something very wonderful about it, something that endures. If she were any other actress, that would not be the case.

But she was Grace Kelly, and (to quote Cary Grant) she was serenity.


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To read the other blogposts celebrating Grace Kelly please click here and follow The Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon co-hosts The Wonderful World of Cinema, The Flapper Dame, Musings From a Classic Film Addict!

 

Revue: The Great Gatsby (1949)

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The year is 1949. Nine years prior, F. Scott Fitzgerald died at the Garden of Allah Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Just under four miles away, Paramount Pictures began an adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the first since the 1926 silent film version (now lost).

It was only twenty years since the book’s publication, but even then, the Jazz Age was already being romanticized. You could see it in the opening scenes of the film. Macdonald Carey’s Nick Carraway talks about jazz, Prohibition, gangsters, and the stock market. The world had changed so much since then – there was a depression and a world war back-to-back. The Twenties must’ve seem eons ago by comparison.

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When Hubert Met Audrey

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It began on Roman Holiday. Audrey Hepburn was new to film and Edith Head was the de facto queen of costumes. She was not, as some would mistakingly call her, a fashion designer; Edith Head was a costumer. She made wardrobes that looked right on the big screen – that were framed right, shot right, lit right.

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Head’s dissatisfaction with Audrey Hepburn’s physique was immediate. She thought the starlet too gangly. That her shoulders were too narrow, neck too long, arms frail, legs knock-kneed, waist obscenely slim, teeth too big. She believed in the post-WWII return to sensual allure. It was the hourglass figure, ample bosoms, and provocative skin of Dior’s New Look that Head honed onscreen. Grace Kelly was Head’s idea of the nonpareil. In the costumes of Roman Holiday, all these “imperfections” were covered by jewels, scarves, and long skirts. Her costumes weren’t meant to be fashionable or trendy, they were meant to be timeless – timeless in an unremarkably un-couture way.

On Sabrina, director Billy Wilder decided that Sabrina Fairchild needed a true Parisian designer if her transformation was to seem realistic.

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The Two Faces of Cagney

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Despite having done an impression of James Cagney my entire life, I had never seen a single film of the famous gangster. Yankee Doodle Dandy may have been playing behind my back on TV at some point, but never did I ever sit down and watch an entire Cagney film the entire way through.

Boy, was that a mistake.

Cagney’s performances are something to behold. Not only did he epitomize the classic Hollywood gangster, but he managed to wriggle out of that archetype and dominate the old-fashioned song-and-dance hoofer too. His acting style was uniquely his own. A combination of energy and theatrical “back-of-the-room” projecting, but never ham-fisted or exaggerated. You couldn’t say that about any other actor. If they were theatrical, they were over-acting, and it showed. Cagney’s voice, his cadence, that devilish snarl, that wink of the eye as he dared to dazzle you – that was the great weapon of his acting methods.

For the 2nd Marathon Stars Blogathon, I split my viewings of five essential Jimmy Cagney pictures into those two faces of his performances: the gangster and the hoofer.

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History of the Kelly Bag

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Now an expensive status symbol, such was the popularity of Grace Kelly in the 1950s that the luxurious Hermès bag she carried with her everywhere became rechristened with her name, ensuring the late Hollywood actress-turned-princess a lasting legacy in the fashion world. It would make Grace Kelly, an actress of only seven professional years, a cultural icon.

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The Sac à dépêches bag, as it was then known, was created in 1935, eleven years after the invention of the first leather handbag. Its earlier incarnations included high handles and smaller designs than most handbags of the day. It wasn’t until Émile-Maurice Hermès’s son-in-law Robert Dumas redesigned the bag that it became the Sac à dépêches we know today. With a little more glamor, a memorable trapezium shape, and studs on the bottom allowing the bag to stand, the Sac à dépêches was born.

Its uniqueness laid in its craftsmanship. Each bag is hand-designed, quite literally, by a single artisan, requiring a total of 18 to 25 hours of over 2,500 hand-stitches. For that reason, the Kelly bag holds its high retail price.

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It was Alfred Hitchcock who introduced Grace Kelly to the Hermès bag. In the ’50s, she became his new muse – and he sought to use Kelly to bring elegance into his thrillers. With enough guidance from Edith Head, the Sac à dépêches bag became Kelly’s weapon of choice in To Catch a Thief, the picture that made Kelly fall in love with Europe. Her choice of preference was crocodile skin, either brown or navy blue, the two most popular colors to this day.

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It was the birth of paparazzi. Elio Sorci was photographing Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Years later, Marlon Brando would punch Ron Galella in the jaw. Grace Kelly was no exception to high-profile scrutiny. Her engagement to Prince Rainier III was the talk of the town. She would be the first American princess – famous in her own right. She used her handbag to shield her pregnant belly from the paparazzi. In 1956, Life magazine featured such a photograph of her bag, and so iconic was that image that the public began referring to it as the “Kelly” bag.

And the name stuck.


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To read the other blogposts celebrating Grace Kelly please click here and follow The Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon co-hosts The Wonderful World of Cinema & The Flapper Dame!

 

 

Citizen Slapstick and the Debut of Joseph Cotten

It was to be the first of many cinematic collaborations together, but at the time, Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten had already worked together for three years in the theatre. With three successful plays that catapulted the young Welles into superstardom as the 22-year-old “boy wonder” of Broadway, Welles was thirsting to play with different modes of storytelling.

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Revue: The Brides of Dracula (1960)

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The decay rate of Hammer films was such that by the time a picture was successful enough to warrant sequels, the quality would drop so low that the actors would refuse to speak. Such was the case for Christopher Lee, who despised the writing in subsequent Dracula pictures to the point where he spoke not a single line in Dracula: Prince of Darkness

So you’d expect a sequel without Christopher Lee in it at all to be the lowest of lows for Hammer’s reputation. Then again, you’d be surprised by the thrilling and sometimes haunting nature of The Brides of Dracula which, outside of title and a reference, contains no direct connection to Dracula nor his brides.

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Top Hats & Twirls: An Ode to Astaire/Rogers

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They’re considered the most iconic dance partners on film. Their classiness transcended their films and their romantic lullabies created a space for elegance to thrive in a world depressed by war. We are talking, of course, of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose multiple film collaborations made them the most iconic male-female musical duo of their time, my pick for this month’s Dynamic Duo in Classic Film Blogathon.

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Revue: An American in Paris (1951) 🇫🇷

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Often overlooked and often compared to its more iconic counterpart, Singin’ in the Rain, is one of my favorite pictures to watch on days when there’s nothing to do or when there’s too much to do. If Singin’ in the Rain is that classic Hollywood romp you watch late at night until 1:30am in the morning (and what a lovely morning!), then An American in Paris is its daytime Parisian companion piece.

The charm and positive attitude of An American in Paris is what always gets to me. Hollywood will always be Hollywood with its sawdust soundstages and thin wooden sets, but the old-world charm of the Paris setting completely transports you to a land of culture where everyone is either in the arts or sipping espressos in the Latin Quarter.

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He Wants Me to Like Him: Chaplin the People-Pleaser

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“He was someone – more than anyone, more than any artist I know – he loved people. He was such a generous man, and he loved people. That’s what his films are about. They’re about people and a love for humanity, and an optimism for humanity!”
— Geraldine Chaplin

One of my favorite podcasts is Maltin on Movies, a discussion of movies by film critic Leonard Maltin and his daughter Jessie. I was happening upon one of their latest episodes in which they interviewed comedian Bill Hader at SXSW when their conversation turned towards the eternal Chaplin vs. Keaton debate. This succinct conversation seemed, in my mind, to have encapsulated the hundreds of books and articles written comparing the two titans of silent film comedy, exploring their craft, sense of humor, and styles of performances.

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