Gone but not forgotten

Ken Russell 1927-2011

What a sad day. Ken Russell the visionary director of The Devils (1971), Women in Love (1969) and Tommy (1975) has died at the age of 84. Michael Winner, the talentless hack who directed Death Wish and the remake of the The Big Sleep, is still around to give the BBC his thoughts on the passing of a great man. “He was very jovial. He wasn’t the sort of mad sadist which you might think from seeing some of the movies.”

Nicely put, Mr Winner. In a recent BBC Time Shift documentary Dear Censor, Winner poured scorn on BBFC President Stephen Murphy, who’d had the temerity to order cuts to Death Wish in the mid-70s. Far more interesting was the discussion about Russell’s The Devils, a truly incendiary mixture of religious fanaticism, transgressive sex and violence enacted on Derek Jarman’s pristine white sets. Simply perusing the list of plot keywords on IMDb is enough to make a nun blush. (Well, maybe not one of the libidinous hussies depicted in The Devils.)

These days you can judge the importance of a recently deceased artist by the number of articles that spring up in the Guardian Culture section. As of this evening, the Ken Russell microsite comprises no fewer than 16 articles, ranging from an obituary, to a collection of clips from his varied oeuvre — from his BBC Monitor documentary about Elgar (1962) to later works like Gothic (1986) and Whore (1991).

Words like nutter (yes, Winner again), eccentric and controversial have been bandied around today in the rush to put Russell into some sort of artistic context. Was he just a jolly, crazy-eyed iconoclast whose best films were made 40 years ago? Should he simply be ranked as one of Britain’s finest directors, or was he the equal of Fellini and Pasolini in terms of his ambition, his vision and his flair for stirring up trouble?

The enfant terrible of British cinema had obviously mellowed a bit during those all those years of critical mauling and funding difficulties. Interviewed by the BBC’s Mark Lawson in 2008, he was asked whether he ever got angry with the film business. “Well, there’s no point in getting angry, one just gets philosophical” replied the man who once struck critic Alexander Walker with a rolled-up newspaper.

I like to think Ken would be enjoying the ongoing debate today over that “fig” scene from Women in Love, in which Rupert (Alan Bates) conflates the proper enjoyment of soft fruit with the pleasures of the flesh. One outraged Guardian reader described it as a “blatant, misogynistic moment”, though the offending lines were taken from a Lawrence poem. Literate and provocative in equal measures, it’s the cinema of Ken Russell in a nutshell.

It’s a shame he won’t be around for January’s DVD release of The Devils, though he did record an audio commentary which is sure to be worth £11.99 all by itself. While apparently X-rated, this version of what the BFI calls Russell’s “bold and brilliant religious drama” still won’t include those outré scenes involving the wilful abuse of a crucifix and a charred bone. Long-time fan Mark Kermode explains it all here and tonight described Ken as “Somebody who never felt the need to apologise for his own genius.”


Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011

The Queen is dead. Elizabeth Taylor, who died today aged 79, was officially a Dame of the British Empire. She was also Hollywood royalty. That phrase is wheeled out regularly by unimaginative broadcasters every time a Hollywood octogenarian — or even nonagenarian – departs for that dressing room in the sky. But though Taylor didn’t even make it to 80, her fame and (at times) her notoriety really did transcend all boundaries. With eight marriages, two Oscars, more than 50 movies and several premature obituaries to her name, she was rarely out of the news.

Born in Hampstead, North London, to American parents, Taylor relocated to Los Angeles during World War II. She made her screen debut in 1942’s There’s One Born Every Minute, but her real breakthrough came at MGM with Lassie Come Home (1943), in which she ignored that famous maxim about never working with animals and Roddy McDowall. Arguably the best-loved of her juvenile roles was the spirited Velvet Brown in the equine drama National Velvet.

Taylor’s later friendship and support for Michael Jackson in times of trouble is well-documented. But in the 50s she was known for her close relationship with the hugely talented but perpetually troubled gay actor, Montgomery Clift. (He died in 1966 and is far more deserving of cult status than James Dean.) In her excellent 1978 biography of Clift, Patricia Bosworth writes of the actor’s initial reservations about being cast opposite the 17-year-old Taylor in A Place in the Sun. But George Stevens’ overwrought drama gave Taylor one of her defining roles as the gorgeous debutante who drives Clift’s social climber to a desperate act. Shot in black and white, the film’s celebrated close-ups of the ill-starred pair are an intoxicating reminder of cinema’s obsession with sheer physical beauty.

As if the Clift/Taylor pairing wasn’t memorable enough, she also appeared opposite Dean and Rock Hudson in Stevens’ 1956 oil epic, Giant. Yes, it’s a pot-boiler and Dean’s “aged” look at the end of the film isn’t very convincing, but the actor’s premature death ensured the film would be a memorial to his brief career. More impressive was Taylor’s sensuous Maggie “the Cat” opposite Paul Newman’s Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). The Southern accent may be a little wobbly — her voice was not Taylor’s greatest asset — but watching her sexually frustrated wife spar with Newman and his overbearing family is hugely entertaining. It’s bedroom drama of the highest order.

The 60s was the decade of excess for Taylor — from the extravagant make-up and bloated budget of Cleopatra, to the tabloid-baiting romance with Richard Burton. Their on-screen partnership produced dross like the VIPs and The Sandpiper, but Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a no-holds barred exercise in marital warfare and Taylor is terrific. She won an Oscar for that part, as she had done for the trashy BUtterfield 8, six years earlier.

Some of Taylor’s other films of that period reflected an ambition to be viewed as a serious actress, rather than just a fabulous beauty, known for changing husbands every few years. John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), and Joseph Losey’s Secret Ceremony and Boom (both 1968) didn’t make money or wow the critics, but perhaps there will be a reappraisal now.

From the mid-70s Taylor continued to work intermittently in film and on TV, appearing in the mini-series North and South, a TV movie of Sweet Bird of Youth and as Pearl Slaghoople in The Flintstones (1994).

The woman who married Richard Burton twice will also be remembered for her huge contribution to fundraising for AIDs charities, including the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation. It’s easy to forget the shock caused by Rock Hudson’s death back in 1985 — not least because of his pitifully emaciated appearance in those final days. Taylor’s efforts helped to turn the tide against stigmatising the disease and raised millions of life-saving dollars.

Years ago I read David Niven’s memoir, The Moon’s a Balloon, in which he paid tribute to the actress he first met when she was a teenager: “Her incredible beauty, her talent and her violet eyes have been the subject of endless paeons of praise; less well known are her courage, her down-to earthiness and her staunch defence of friends.” His words are a perfect epitaph for Taylor, who may not have been Britain’s greatest actress but was unquestionably our biggest post-war star.

At least two major British newspapers have today characterised Taylor as “the last of the Hollywood Greats”. It makes for a good headline, but also demonstrates a woeful ignorance of Tinseltown history. I wonder what the fabulous Lauren Bacall and Maureen O’Hara (aged 86 and 90, respectively) would have to say about that? Let’s not forget Kirk Douglas, either.

(Originally published @Sound on Sight)

Jane Russell 1921-2011

The day after 94-year-old Kirk Douglas tottered onstage at the Oscars, Hollywood lost another of its golden greats in the shapely person of Jane Russell. The coverage of her death has (predictably) focused on that famous cleavage and the somewhat surprising news that Russell was a Republican. Right-wingers in Tinseltown always seem to attract an undue amount of opprobrium, so let’s cut her some slack. After all, she was a movie star, a singer and sex symbol — not the Governor of Alaska.

If you wanted to explain the essence of 50s Hollywood glamour to a visiting alien, you could do worse than to run the opening sequence of Howard Hawks’s musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe sashay on stage in their red sequins and feathers, singing “Two Little Girls from Little Rock”, the impact remains startling even today.

Blondes isn’t the best film Monroe or director Howard Hawks ever made, but as an example of sheer star wattage it is hard to beat. Everyone remembers Marilyn’s Lorelei Lee clad in pink and singing about her love of diamonds, but Russell’s Dorothy has her own show-stopper with the (retrospectively) camp “Anyone Here for Love?”. Perhaps the current Hollywood obsession with the colour “nude” began with the tiny shorts Jane’s musclebound co-stars are sporting in that scene. She also gets some of the best lines, managing to gently deflate her co-star without ever appearing bitchy. How many other actresses could have shared a screen with Marilyn in her prime and not be rendered invisible?

Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was originally from Minnesota, but later moved to Southern California where she grew up on a ranch with her four brothers. In 1940 she attracted the attention of Howard Hughes — always a connoisseur of female pulchritude — which led to her being cast in the western The Outlaw. If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, you’ll know that the delicate issue of Russell’s décolletage was quite a big deal at the time. She was famous — or infamous — long before the movie ever saw the light of day.

As the hyperventilating trailer suggests, The Outlaw isn’t exactly the definitive take on the story of Pat Garrett and Billy Kid, but who cares? This was Jane Russell’s screen debut and the impact of her raw sexual magnetism was enormous. Her acting skills may have been limited, but then so were Lauren Bacall’s in the equally memorable To Have and Have Not. Whatever you think of Hughes’s artistic credibility, or lack of it, he knew how to make his new leading lady’s assets count — at the box office.

Russell’s career on the big screen was, to be honest, rather patchy. Despite her spectacular looks, a decent voice and a flair for comedy, she didn’t emulate Monroe’s success in working with some distinguished directors. Her films with Bob Hope, The Paleface (1948) and Son of Paleface (1952) are still fondly remembered and in 1951 she was paired with Robert Mitchum in the minor noir, His Kind of Woman. For RKO Studios this was, as Mitchum’s biographer neatly puts it “The screen’s two greatest chests, together for the first time.”

Russell was married three times, most famously to quarterback Bob Waterfield from 1943-1967. Unable to have children, she adopted three and founded World Adoption International Fund, which rejoices in the acronym WAIF. Arguably, helping to find homes for unwanted kids is a much greater contribution to humanity than making movies — good, bad or indifferent. But I suspect Jane Russell is going to be remembered for her humour, her longevity and the indelible impression she leaves as one of Playtex’s most famous models.

John Barry 1933-2011

It’s a sad irony that composer John Barry has died in the week that sees the release of a new film adaptation of Brighton Rock. In 2004 a musical version of Graham Greene’s novel was produced at the Almeida Theatre in London, with songs by Barry and lyricist Don Black. The reviews were mixed, with The Guardian’s Michael Billington calling Barry’s score “sugary”. It’s not a word I’d normally associate with a story about sadistic violence, Catholic angst and twisted loyalties — or with the distinctive sound of one of Britain’s finest movie composers.

In those far-off days before DVDs, MP3s or YouTube I used to tune in to LWT on Sunday afternoons, hoping to catch the beginning of The Persuaders!, with Roger Moore and Tony Curtis. To be honest, I wasn’t that interested in the antics of those middle-aged playboys. It was the opening credits sequence I wanted to see — sepia-tinted footage that juxtaposed the wildly contrasting upbringings of the old Harrovian and the tenement kid. Best of all was Barry’s unforgettable Moog synthesiser theme music, a sound that encapsulates the early 70s for me in the same way Bill Conti’s Dynasty theme does for the decade of shoulder pads and lip gloss.

Most James Bond fans will know that Barry was the creative force behind 11 of the 007 movies, including Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice and (my favourite) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s a shame that in later years Barry was mired in a controversy over whether he — rather than Monty Norman — had composed the theme for the first Bond movie, Dr. No. (Barry is not credited at all on that film.) Whatever the truth, it is Barry’s name that remains most closely associated with the golden years of the franchise.

Barry’s long career wasn’t just about providing the right combination of brassiness and seductive strings around which Shirley Bassey could wrap her extraordinary tonsils. A quick glimpse at IMDb reveals that he worked on more than 100 films and TV shows, including composing the theme for the BBC’s Juke Box Jury and appearing on a show called Drumbeat with his band, The John Barry Seven.

Appropriately, for a man whose music encapsulates the best of the 60s, Barry’s third wife, Jane Birkin, was one of the icons of that decade. He won five Oscars, including two for Born Free, though I can’t say that the tedious Dances with Wolves or the risible Out of Africa are films that encapsulate the best of Barry. Isn’t that always the way with awards?

In his sleeve notes for “The Best of John Barry Themeology” CD, fan boy Jonathan Ross wrote: “The man’s a god. If he were French then they’d name a park after him and cover him in medallions.” Even allowing for the usual Ross hyperbole, the man does have a point. A paltry OBE seems like a very poor reward for the man who wrote the music for “We Have All the Time in the World”. After all, Mick Jagger has a knighthood!

Great film music should complement the action rather than drown it out — something Alexandre Desplat has so far failed to grasp. It should stand up on its own and yet remain inextricably linked with the images it describes. Here are my five selections for the Best of Barry.

Midnight Cowboy theme

The Ipcress File theme

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service theme

We Have All the Time in the World (from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)

The Knack . . . theme

Susannah York 1939-2011

Susannah York in Oh! What a Lovely War

Quintessential English rose or frustrated wild child? Susannah York, who died on Saturday aged 72, might have characterised herself as the latter, according to an interview with The Guardian in 2007. Her son, actor Orlando Wells, used the term “maverick” when describing his mother’s approach to her career. News organisations, though, prefer something a bit more feminine — especially if the lady in question had blonde hair, blue eyes and a wholesome kind of beauty.

York was also the young star whose performance in The Greengage Summer (1961) so captivated my Dad that he named me after her. It’s a long time since I saw that film (also known as Loss of Innocence), but like The Go-Between it belongs to that genre of stories about adolescents caught up in the affairs of adults, which tend to linger long in the memory. It wasn’t York’s film debut, but her looks and her performance made a strong impact in a cast that also included Kenneth More, Danielle Darrieux and Jane Asher.

It’s sad how many talented actresses end up being remembered merely as an adjunct to the men they loved and lost, or for some one-dimensional sex-kitten role they played early in their career. (Jane Fonda may have a couple of Oscars but she’ll always be Barbarella.) But reading about Susannah York I’ve been struck by the fact that she only married once (to Michael Wells) and didn’t lead the scandalous, tabloid-friendly life that keeps some of our sleazier organs in business.

In the 60s York’s career wasn’t defined by one iconic role or a part in a James Bond movie. But she did make a string of notable films, including the bawdy romp Tom Jones (1963), the Oscar-winning A Man for All Seasons and the much-admired Battle of Britain. She was also part of the roll call of British acting talent in Richard Attenborough’s musical, Oh! What a Lovely War.

Of course there was some dross, too. It was hard for any British actress in the Swinging Sixties to avoid being cast in one of those modish caper movies designed to show how hip London was. So York wound up being cast as a policeman’s daughter in Kaleidoscope (1966) opposite Warren Beatty’s poker whizz. Some might consider being photographed in Carnaby Street with Beatty one for the scrapbook — but this wasn’t what you’d call a career high for either of them.

She gained her only Oscar nomination (for best supporting actress) in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which also starred Jane Fonda. It would be interesting to transpose this downbeat story about the gruelling dance-hall marathons of the 1930s to the context of a 21st century financial crisis and 24/7 news coverage. It would be all over the internet, wouldn’t it?

Playing Beryl Reid’s lesbian lover in the bizarre black comedy, The Killing of Sister George, was a bold choice for the late 60s. The plot, in which a boozy soap-opera actress (Reid) and a predatory BBC producer (Coral Browne) fight over York’s pretty but spoiled “Childie”, sounds like wicked fun. But in the hands of director Robert Aldrich it struck me as rather ponderous and overacted by Reid. Still, York does well to make any impression at all in this increasingly hysterical drama. Her eventual seduction by Browne’s home-wrecker is one of the creepiest scenes I’ve ever seen.

Superman fans will remember York as the Man of Steel’s mother in the first two Christopher Reeve adventures. (Her voice is also heard in the fourth movie.) Her later career included TV roles in everything from The Two Ronnies, Ruth Rendell Mysteries to (inevitably) the BBC’s Casualty and Holby City. A RADA graduate, she also enjoyed a long and varied career on stage, appearing in Shakespeare, Shaw and on the Edinburgh Fringe.

Still lovely in her 70s, Susannah York also found time during her busy career to write children’s books and campaign against nuclear weapons. Unlike contemporaries Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda, she seems to have done all this without making enemies, parading about in leg warmers or plugging exercise videos to a generation of gullible housewives. She will be missed.

Ingrid Pitt 1937-2010

As one YouTube user so eloquently puts it: “Ingrid Pitt, you can bite my neck with pleasure.” The Polish actress and star of films like The Vampire Lovers and Countess Dracula, died on 23 November, just two days after celebrating her 73rd birthday. Sadly, it turns out that all the fake blood she imbibed over the years didn’t make her immortal. Fortunately, her screen image was so indelible that she’ll live on in the hearts and minds of horror fans.

Fittingly, Pitt who was born Ingoushka Petrov, made her screen debut in the obscure 1964 Spanish film El sonido de la muerte, which was known in the US as Sound of Horror. From the brief clip I’ve seen, it would appear that the budget only stretched as far as providing some very unconvincing dinosaur sound effects. Still, even horror queens have to start somewhere.

After uncredited appearances in Doctor Zhivago and Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, Pitt’s first major role was opposite Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare (1968). Playing waitress/spy Heidi, she gives Burton’s character a glimpse of the cleavage that would soon be as famous as the fake fangs. In an interview in 2008, Pitt revealed that she’d seen off competition from 300 other actresses for this part, after receiving a tip-off from John Wayne’s stunt man, Yakima Canutt.

Two years later, Pitt was finally able to sink her teeth into a really substantial part, with Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers, based on Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s story Carmilla. Top-billed as the predatory Marcilla/Carmilla, Pitt is what you might call the house guest from hell. One look at those dramatic cheekbones and seductive eyes and virginal young ladies are offering up their necks and their bosoms to be ravaged by the insatiable vampire — only this time it’s not Dracula.

These days there are so many bloodsuckers rampaging across our screens — gay, straight and bi-curious — it’s easy to forget what an impact this film and its star made 40 years ago. At a time when Horror and its rival Amicus were upping the quotient of sex and gore to keep the punters interested, there was a danger that titillation would swamp any attempt at nuanced story-telling or genuine scariness.

Though she does float about in (conveniently) diaphanous gowns dispensing rather hackneyed dialogue, Pitt manages to transcend the cheesier elements of the story. To me, that is proof that Pitt had genuine star quality and an understanding of the combination of eroticism and sly humour the material demanded. Compare her with second-rate performers like Yvonne Monlaur and Andree Melly in the utterly feeble Brides of Dracula (1960) and you’ll understand what a difference it makes to see a real woman baring her teeth and her soul.

Though her name became synonymous with Hammer horror, Countess Dracula was Pitt’s second and final film for the studio. In the fang-free story of a real-life Hungarian serial killer, Pitt plays the ageing Countess Elisabeth Nodosheen, who discovers that virgins’ blood can restore her stunning looks — for a while. It’s not long before she’s bathing in blood, kidnapping her own daughter and plundering the countryside for fresh victims.

Annoyingly, Pitt’s distinctive and heavily accented voice is dubbed in Countess Dracula, but everything else looks genuine. You could argue that this role offers more range than your average vampire flick, as the Countess has to come to terms with the limitations imposed by her rapidly deteriorating face and the weakness of the various men around her. It’s a memorable performance in what would otherwise be a rather pedestrian early 70s costume drama.

The back cover of my DVD of The House that Dripped Blood depicts a fang-bearing Ingrid Pitt — all flowing blonde locks and plunging neckline. This portmanteau horror from Amicus also features two of the genre’s biggest stars, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, yet it is the image of Pitt from the movie’s final segment that most people remember.

Pitt co-stars with the then Doctor Who Jon Pertwee in a tongue-in-cheek story about a preening horror actor who discovers that his leading lady has wicked designs on his jugular. The scene in which Pitt dons the vampire’s cloak and flies towards a cowering Pertwee is hilarious. I’d like to have seen her opposite Vincent Price (the original choice for the role), but Pertwee does a good job both sending himself up and carrying off some ghastly floral shirts.

Fangs for the memories . . .

Pitt also appeared in The Wicker Man, one of the most revered and unusual horror movies of the 70s. Sadly, the appearances of Pitt and Diane Cilento tend to get overlooked these days in favour of the endless perving over Britt Ekland’s body double in the infamous “dance” scene.

Given Pitt’s murderous track record in those Hammer movies, I like the irony of Edward Woodward’s opening gambit when he confronts her in the registrar’s office: “I’d like to see your index of deaths, please.” He threatens a demure-looking Pitt with jail if she doesn’t co-operate with his investigation into the missing schoolgirl. A virginal policeman attempting to get tough with horror’s ballsiest vampire — now that is a serious error of judgment.

Ingrid Pitt remains tight-lipped and buttoned-up in The Wicker Man

Pitt continued to work on screen in the 70s and 80s, though not with the same impact that she’d made during her brief reign as the queen of British horror. She made a comeback a decade ago, with the low-budget horror The Asylum.

Proving that she was much more than just a pretty face and a voluptuous figure, she went on to found her own theatre company and wrote her autobiography, Life’s a Scream, in which she talked about her memories of imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. Her other writing projects included columns for Shivers magazine and several other books in and about the genre that had made her name.

It’s a shame that Ingrid Pitt’s career started too late to encompass the great years of Hammer horror, but she still did enough to justify her reputation as the screen’s most alluring vampire.

This article is also published at Sound on Sight

Jill Clayburgh 1944-2010

Some actresses toil for a lifetime clocking up credits on IMDb, without ever achieving much in the way of recognition. Others get the awards, the stratospheric salaries and the celebrity spouses. The name of actress Jill Clayburgh, who died yesterday aged 66, will probably be unfamiliar to many — though they may know the face from her many TV roles. But 30 years ago, Clayburgh made one of those Zeitgeist-defining films that ensures her little piece of Hollywood immortality is secure.

That movie was Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978), the story of an affluent New York housewife, whose husband (played by Michael Murphy) leaves her for a younger woman. I first saw it in the early 80s, when the attitudes towards family, sex and the politics of relationships struck me as daring, sophisticated and somehow rather European. Carrie Bradshaw and her Manolo-wearing cronies weren’t even a twinkle in Darren Star’s eye when Clayburgh’s frank, funny and newly-liberated Erica Benton was taking the plunge in the New York dating scene. Watching Erica and her girlfriends comparing notes on orgasms and dating teenagers is like Sex and the City, only without the disapproving asides from Charlotte.

Hollywood is a good at doing goddesses, heroines, whores and victims — sometimes they are all wrapped up in the same breathtaking package. But I don’t think it’s ever been very good at portraying real women in believable situations without ladling on the syrup or pouring the leading lady into an uplift bra in a bid to make her more sexy. Clayburgh’s great gift was to be attractive, funny and down to earth — qualities that made her sympathetic and engaging rather than just unattainable.

In An Unmarried Woman her husband Martin bursts into tears on the street as he reveals that he’s been in love with someone else for more than a year. Typically, this kind of scene would see the wronged wife sobbing her way through a box of Kleenex, rather than her cheating spouse. Clayburgh’s performance is a masterpiece of restraint that moves from sympathy, to disbelief, anger and then a note of contempt: “Is she a good lay?”. Even as he’s wallowing in self pity, you can see her gaze shifting from him to the gaping hole that is her future.

Clayburgh was Oscar nominated for that film and for her role as Burt Reynolds’ girlfriend in Starting Over (1979). Alan J Pakula’s comedy drama pits Clayburgh against Candice Bergen as rivals for Burt’s affections. But whereas Bergen’s Jessica (the ex-wife) is gorgeous, ambitious and unashamedly high-maintenance, Clayburgh’s more homely schoolteacher sets her sights on a new couch and perhaps a reliable man to share it with. The film may be 30 years old, but I think lots of women will relate to Clayburgh’s heartfelt “I liked being unattached” speech after Burt has failed to identify her as his girlfriend. Great acting can transcend a hackneyed storyline.

Clayburgh, who came from a wealthy New York Jewish family, appeared on Broadway before making her TV debut in 1968. She had a minor role in Portnoy’s Complaint (1972) and by the mid-70s had the leading role (opposite James Brolin) in the biopic Gable and Lombard. As a fan of both Clayburgh and the luminous Carole Lombard, I have very mixed feelings about Sidney J Furie’s poorly received account of one of Tinseltown’s most famous love stories. I’ve never seen the film, and comments like Time Out’s “Brolin is a wax dummy and Clayburgh produces a very modern version of the Lombard larkishness” don’t exactly sell me on the idea of buying or renting the DVD. But Lombard was renowned for being one of Hollywood’s least pretentious goddesses and I like to think that Clayburgh would have captured that aspect well. Perhaps I’ll risk it . . .

Clayburgh also courted controversy in the late 70s with Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Luna, in which she stars as an Italian opera singer who has an unhealthy relationship with her screwed-up teenage son. Those who are easily shocked should probably stay well away from the work Bertolucci, and this film is admired mainly for Vittorio Storaro’s photography. Still, Clayburgh’s willingness to take a risk at what was probably the peak of her career is admirable. It’s the perennial problem for actresses — whether to play the girlfriend role to Hollywood’s hunk of the month, or do something different. You can’t always act as second fiddle to the likes of Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson (Semi-Tough), or Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor (Silver Streak).

I find it sad that many people will be saying “Jill who?” when they see the obituary notices this weekend. Like other fine actresses from the 70s — Karen Black, Susan Anspach and Shelley Duvall — Clayburgh had not exactly been a household name in recent years. For differing reasons, some of her contemporaries like Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep have remained major stars. To my knowledge, Clayburgh never branched out into directing, producing or political activism.

Some will remember her as Ally McBeal’s mother, Jeannie, in that bafflingly popular series about the stick-thin lawyer, while more recently she was seen as matriarch Letitia Darling in the TV drama Dirty Sexy Money. Her performance as Agnes Finch, the surrogate mum to Augusten Burroughs, in Running with Scissors (2006) was worthy of an Oscar nomination. But it’s easy to overlook the humanity of Clayburgh’s quietly spoken and unselfish Agnes, in a film dominated by kooky characters and grandstanding performances.

I’m glad that Clayburgh’s final film, Bridesmaids, in which she plays the mother of Kristen Wiig’s Annie, has turned out to be such a huge hit. But for me, Clayburgh will always be the “unmarried” Erica from the first truly adult film I can remember watching. Sexy, appealing, not overly neurotic — a real woman embracing her freedom in a world where men still think they should always have the last word.

(Also published @Sound on Sight)

Tony Curtis: 1925-2010

He shared a bath with Laurence Olivier (Spartacus), a bed with Janet Leigh (the first of his six wives) and was one half of a flamboyant 70s crime-fighting duo with Roger Moore in The Persuaders. But despite his luxuriant locks and matinée idol looks, Tony Curtis, is best remembered for embracing his feminine side as a cross-dressing musician in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959).

Curtis, who came to acting via a stint in the US Navy, was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx on 3 June 1925. He was under contract to Universal from the late 40s, and one of his earliest roles was opposite his future wife, Leigh, in Jerry Lewis’s bizarrely-named short, How to Smuggle a Hernia Across the Border. I suspect not too many people remember that one, but he played the title roles in Houdini and Son of Ali Baba in the early 50s, before being (mis)credited with that line “Yondah lies the castle of my faddah” in 1954’s The Black Shield of Falworth.

In 1957, Curtis gave one of his greatest performances in the ironically titled Sweet Smell of Success. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick from a screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, it was a box-office failure. This cynical tale of scheming press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis) and his attempts to curry favour with big-shot Broadway columnist JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) was probably ahead of its time. It dared to shine a light on the sordid and self-serving world of celebrity journalism and, as Lancaster’s biographer Kate Buford puts it, “drowned in a river of red ink and popular repugnance”.

As Falco, Curtis is the consummate liar and the ultimate wheeler-dealer — a man made for the night and the city, which in this case is New York. He lives in his office and treats women with a barely disguised contempt. Lancaster, whose production company made the film, has the kind of commanding screen presence that can make his co-stars look insignificant. It’s a tribute to Curtis that his restless, ruthless and oleaginous Falco holds his own against the eerily calm Hunsecker. One of the film’s most famous lines is “Match me, Sidney” – Curtis certainly does that.

Sadly, he didn’t get an Oscar nomination then, or for his part in cinema’s most famous cross-dressing comedy, Some Like It Hot. It’s one of those films that you watch repeatedly, but I must admit to being more a fan of Curtis’s coolly authoritative and rather sultry Joe/Josephine, than Jack Lemmon’s shrill Jerry/Daphne. Of course, everyone remembers Curtis’s rather ungallant “kissing Hitler” comment in reference to his scenes with co-star Marilyn Monroe. He later claimed it was a “joke” answer to a “darn stupid” question, but given Monroe’s reputation as one of cinema’s tragic victims, it doesn’t reflect well on Curtis.

Curtis’s production company, Curtleigh, made just four films including Sweet Smell, The Defiant Ones (for which he was Oscar nominated) and the preposterous The Vikings, co-starring a one-eyed Kirk Douglas. Perhaps if he’d originated more of his own projects, Curtis would have rivalled the success of Douglas, whose company Bryna made the Oscar-winning Spartacus in 1960.

I find the notorious and innuendo-laden “snails and oysters” scene in Spartacus with Curtis and Olivier very silly. Its restoration seems like more of a gift to comedy than posterity. For me, the most affecting and schmaltz-free sequence is the fight to the death between brothers in arms Spartacus (Douglas) and Antoninus (Curtis). To the “victor” goes the prize of a slow death.

The Boston Strangler (1968), in which Curtis stars as real-life killer Albert DeSalvo, is one of those overlooked films from an underrated director (Richard Fleischer) that rarely turns up on TV. Apparently, the actor considered it one of his favourite movies and also ranked it among his most challenging roles. Some found the depiction of the murders here too lurid, but any lingering doubts that Curtis was just a pretty boy – a cinematic lightweight – are dispelled by his graphic re-enactment of his crimes in the presence of investigator Henry Fonda.

If the extensive list of “personal quotes” on IMDb is anything to go by, Curtis was something of a raconteur, as well as a ladies’ man, an accomplished painter and, of course, father to Jamie Lee Curtis. He worked intermittently over the past decade, and his final completed film was David & Fatima (2008). Perhaps he didn’t quite scale the heights of contemporaries like Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, but his lengthy filmography contains a few real gems and film fans will always cherish that Cary Grant impersonation from Some Like It Hot.

Claude Chabrol 1930-2010

Meat is murder: Stéphane Audran in Claude Chabrol's Le Boucher

Film School Rejects recently posted a list of the best — and worst — movie collaborations between directors and their spouses. It seems those capricious movie gods have decreed that for every Oscar-winning gem like Fargo (Joel Coen directs Frances McDormand) there must be a farrago like Guy Ritchie’s Swept Away, starring his then-wife Madonna.

No-one, though, could accuse Claude Chabrol of stunt casting or undue uxorial influence in making his second wife Stéphane Audran the leading lady in many of his films, including Le Boucher, La Rupture, and Juste avant la nuit. The veteran French director, who died on 12 September 2010, was one of the founding members of the Nouvelle Vague, though he wasn’t regarded as an innovator in the same way that François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were.

Chabrol was also known as “the French Hitchcock”, an epithet that was probably unavoidable for a man who worked so often and so effectively in the genre of suspense. Like Hitchcock, Chabrol’s output was prolific, from 1958’s Le Beau Serge, to Bellamy (2009) starring Gérard Depardieu. But if you relish the slick set pieces that distinguish some of Hitch’s best-known films — the Mount Rushmore sequence in North by Northest, Kim Novak’s fatal plunge in Vertigo, or the Statue of Liberty climax to Saboteur — you might find Chabrol a bit low-key. As far as I know, none of his movies feature a struggle to the death on the Eiffel Tower or any other Parisian landmarks.

What I love about Chabrol is that he wasn’t a studio-bound director — he was a master at capturing the look, the sound and the feel of provincial France, in his stories of betrayal, sexual transgression and violent death. The masterful opening scene of Que La Bête Meure (1969) shows a boy walking through a peaceful Breton town just moments before he’s mowed down in a fatal hit-and-run incident. The lovely village of Trémolat in the Dordogne is as central to the Le Boucher (1970) as Audran’s cool blonde headmistress, who brings out the Cro-Magnon man in Popaul (Jean Yanne) – with fatal consequences. Their bizarre mating ritual does feature some classic Hitchcockian black humour, including a moment when the lovestruck butcher turns up in the classroom to present her not with a fragrant bouquet, but a neatly wrapped leg of lamb.

If things had been different, you could imagine the Audran of the 50s and 60s appearing opposite Cary Grant or James Stewart in To Catch a Thief or Rear Window. She certainly had the looks and the screen presence to rival any of Hitch’s leading ladies of the period. But though Chabrol trades on her capacity for leading men astray in films like Les Biches, La Femme Infidèle and Les Noces Rouges, he doesn’t objectify the women in his films to the same degree that Hitchcock does.

When I first saw Chabrol’s L’Enfer (1994) I had no idea that he was working from a screenplay abandoned by another great French director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, 30 years earlier. It’s not his best work, but François Cluzet and Emmanuelle Béart bring a physical intensity to their deteriorating relationship that, by the end, is almost frightening to watch. As jealous husband Paul, the increasingly unhinged Cluzet looks like a cross between Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, while Béart’s performance suggests an accomplished character actress trapped inside the body of a temptress.

Chabrol, who also notched up more than 50 writing credits, adapted novels by leading crime writers including Georges Simenon (Betty) and Patricia Highsmith (Le cri du hibou). But it is his 1995 Ruth Rendell adaptation, La Cérémonie, that best exemplifies his ability to turn class tension and domestic unease into unimaginable carnage. Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire, play the unlikely partners in crime who wreak revenge on the bourgeois family of Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Pierre Cassel. The climax of the film shows the unsuspecting family enjoying a cosy evening watching Mozart’s Don Giovanni on TV, while two very disturbed women indulge in some Clockwork Orange-style mayhem. It’s both horrifying and oddly comic. If you only ever watch one Chabrol film, make it this one.

Patricia Neal: 1926-2010

She could have been Mrs Robinson in The Graduate; she did play (once) the all-American mama Olivia Walton; and for 30 years she was the real-life Mrs Roald Dahl. For me, though, Patricia Neal will always be plain old Alma Brown, the world-weary housekeeper who refused to become another notch on the bedpost of Paul Newman’s amorous Hud Bannon.

It’s well-known that Neal’s screen career was truncated by the debilitating strokes she suffered in the mid-60s. But she still notched up almost 70 screen credits beginning in 1949 with a role in the Ronald Reagan comedy, John Loves Mary. That year she also appeared with a craggy-looking Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead, a tale of architectural fanaticism featuring some truly clunky dialogue and an overwrought Max Steiner score. Neal smoulders opposite the man she’d fallen in love with. With that big age gap – Cooper was 48 – they might have been another Bogart and Bacall, but he eventually reconciled with his wife.

In the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still it would be hard for any actress not to be upstaged by Gort and Klaatu, but Neal projects normality amidst the mounting hysteria. When “Mr Carpenter” (Michael Rennie) comments that her young son is “warm, friendly, intelligent”, I find myself thinking that those qualities apply not just to Neal’s character in the film but to the actress herself.

Hud, the contemporary western for which Neal won the best actress Oscar in 1964, has long been one of my favourite movies. From Elmer Bernstein’s haunting guitar theme, to James Wong Howe’s luminous black and white photography, this wrenching drama about a Texan family on the brink of extinction has always seemed note perfect. Who could compete with the magnificent Paul Newman, then at the height of his physical beauty and totally compelling as the out and out bastard with no loyalty? Well, Neal did.

As the surrogate mother to teenager Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde), Neal holds together an all-male household, with her wisdom, her kindness and her no-nonsense approach to domestic chores. For once, a Hollywood actress really looks as though she knows her way round a kitchen. Newman’s Hud flirts with her, torments her, tries to rape her and – eventually – drives her away. When she leaves town and the disconsolate Lonnie, it’s one of the saddest scenes I can remember in 60s cinema.

Several of the tributes I’ve read today have referenced Neal’s great beauty, along with her courage and consummate acting skills. Looking at stills of her in The Fountainhead, I can see why. It’s a compliment and not an insult to say that I’ve always thought of Neal primarily as an actress and not a sex symbol. But now, watching clips of her and listening to that husky voice I think of Lauren Bacall, born two years earlier, but considered much more of a screen icon. I guess it really is all down to luck, and Neal, who succumbed to lung cancer, was sometimes desperately short of that commodity.