Tag Archives: Orson Welles

My Fortnight in Beauty

I was all set to start writing my beauty diary last Monday when I received news of the death of a friend from the jazz world. I couldn’t resume writing about beauty products; it didn’t feel right – and I wasn’t in the mood anyway. But, that said, frivolous though cosmetics can be – and though writing about them is hardly as important a job as news reporting – they do play an important function in many people’s lives. Looking your best boosts the confidence – and the spirits. Just ask the ladies who’ve benefitted from the Look Good, Feel Better organisation’s work for women who are battling or recovering from cancer… And often faking confidence can lead to genuine confidence.

As countless makeover shows have proved over the years, a change of image – even a slight tweak – can work wonders, not just on your confidence but on how others see you.  And that bounces back at you, and inspires self-confidence. I was reminded of the power of the makeover during a recent trip to the cinema to see the classic noir melodrama Gilda, which is currently touring cinemas.

Its star, Rita Hayworth – above (on set) and left (at the start of her career) –  wasn’t a chameleon on the scale of Joan Crawford, but she did undergo a couple of simple yet radical transformations during her career.

Her first occurred when she had the brainwave of having painful and intensive electrolysis to move her hairline back: before the treatments, her hairline was very low and unflattering. Post-electrolysis, her beautiful face was shown to best advantage – and a star was born.

During the 1940s as her studio experimented occasionally with Technicolor, Rita went red – it’s still the hair colour with which this beauty is most associated – but for the stylish film noir The Lady From Shanghai, made in 1946 by her then-husband Orson Welles, she not only had her hair cropped but hit the bottle and went platinum blonde (see right) for the first and only time. And that looked fab too!

Mind you, I don’t think Rita was too taken with it: she was never seen with short, uber-blonde hair again…

Of the new products I’ve experimented with over the last couple of weeks, No7 Lash Adapt Mascara (£12; www.boots.com) seems to me to be an essential for achieving movie star looks. The USP of this mascara is that you can add up to six layers without it clumping … though I found that my lashes did start getting lumpy before I got to layer five. Where this mascara really triumphed was in its ability to curl the lashes: after just a couple of coats, mine had been teased into a beautiful curve, with minimum effort.  And, as we all know, every femme worth her fatale tag has to have battable lashes. Lash Adapt looks terrific teamed with the beautiful eye shadow quartet from Lancome’s autumn collection: Lancome Les Oeillades in Blondette Fatale (£33; www.lancome.co.uk)

Skincare-wise, these last few weeks have been dedicated to trying out latest wonder serum. Lancome Visionnaire (£57) – yup, the one that the Middleton sisters were rumoured to be using – has certainly got some impressive claims to live up to. In independent tests, more than 50% of women tempted to undergo a dermatological procedure decided to postpone it in favour of continuing to use this skin-correcting serum. And 88% of women considering fillers, lasers or peels said that they noticed a visible improvement in their skin after using Visionnaire.

Actually, I can see where they’re coming from. I’ve noticed that the redness on my cheeks has calmed down considerably, that the lines on my forehead may be a little less pronounced, and that the texture of my skin is markedly improved.

Hair-wise, I had a brief dalliance with Aveda but found that the dry, split ends which often occur at this stage in the cycle of highlights only responded to help from Ojon, and, in particular the Ojon Damage Reverse Restorative Hair Treatment (£32.60; www.johnlewis.com) and Damage Reverse Restorative Smoothing Glaze ( £29).

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Truly Madly Tati

One of the greatest cinematic love affairs of the past half-century has been between British film fans and an angular, accident-prone beanpole of a Frenchman named Monsieur Hulot. The iconic comedy character created by the mime-turned-star and writer-director Jacques Tati has been tickling the funny bones of filmgoers since the release of the movie which introduced him – M. Hulot’s Holiday – in 1953. And it’s a love affair which is being celebrated at this year’s French Film Festival, with a retrospective of all of Jacques Tati’s screen work.

Tati may only have made a handful of films, but they have made a lasting impression on generations of viewers – and it’s not just the popular vote which they’ve earned. His admirers have included Orson Welles, David Lynch, Steven Spielberg and Belleville Rendez-Vous creator Sylvain Chomet who is currently transforming a previously unfilmed Tati script into an animated film.

Tati’s brilliance as a comedy actor has influenced at least two generations of comedians: John Cleese, Paul Merton and Rowan Atkinson, who described seeing M Hulot’s Holiday as “a defining moment in my life” (and paid homage to it in his 2007 film Mr Bean’s Holiday), are just some of the British comics who owe a clear debt to Tati and his very physical comedy style.

But what is it about Tati that makes him so well-loved – even by viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily go to see a foreign film? The main reason has to be his “everyman” appeal. Tati created easily identifiable types who everyone can recognise from their own experience – the postman who takes himself and his work too seriously in his 1949 film Jour de Fete (could he have been the inspiration for Cliff Clavin, the super-officious mailman in the sitcom Cheers?) and the eager-to-please social misfit M Hulot, who creates chaos out of order and is baffled by the technological trappings of modern life.

M Hulot’s fellow holidaymakers are also brilliantly drawn and would fit in to Fawlty Towers as comfortably as they do the Hotel de la Plage. There’s the veteran soldier who drones on about his wartime experiences, the meek, middle-aged sweety-wifey of a husband who is always several steps behind his banality-spouting spouse (“Oh, there’s another boat … and another … oh!”) during their saunters around the beach, and the workaholic businessman whose holiday is punctuated by frequent trips to the telephone (rather like the Tony Roberts character in Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam).

The humour in Tati’s films is very physical – and therefore universal. Tati said that the way a comic actor used his legs was paramount, and he used his to maximum comedy effect, mixing loping strides with hesitant little shuffles as he tries to ingratiate himself into new people’s company. Physically, M Hulot is every bit as recognisable – even in silhouette – as Charlie Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp.

The characteristic Hulot pose is of him tilting forward, with his head at a quizzical angle, his hat tipped over his eyes, his ubiquitous pipe at a right angle to his long nose, his arms bent behind him with his hands resting on his hips. Like Chaplin’s alter ego, he always wears the same kit – trousers that aren’t quite long enough, his Tyrolean-esque hat and stripy socks. He nearly always has his umbrella handy. He walks with a lolling gait, on well-sprung tiptoes and is undoubtedly a French cousin d’un certain Basil Fawlty.

Tati’s background as a mime meant that he was most at home devising visual gags, rather than writing and delivering one-liners or trading witter banter with another actor. Terry Gilliam, the Monty Python team member who became a director, has said: “One of Tati’s great qualities is that his films contain almost no dialogue. I find this particularly brilliant – these divinely French films that create no problem when it comes to subtitling. In terms of dialogue, Monty Python learnt everything from Tati. We owe everything to him.”

Tati’s films feature soundtracks of exaggerated, cartoon-like noises which heighten the effect of the visual comedy – the putt, putt, putt of M Hulot’s old jalopy as it chugs along the road, the be-doing of the restaurant door as the motley crew of hotel guests assembles for lunch, the crashing noise made by our hero’s racquet as he serves in the funniest tennis match in movie history.

The gags which Tati created for his films worked on a number of levels. Many of today’s Tati fans have grown up with M Hulot’s Holiday and have found that their appreciation of it has only increased with time, as they find more and more humour in it.

There’s the obvious, laugh-out-loud slapstick sequences, which appeal enormously to children, but most of the humour lies in the beautifully observed, often whimsical, details which are not flagged up, but are quietly unfolding in a corner of the screen. It pays to see Tati’s films in the cinema as so much happens in the background – and he actively avoided filming close-ups. Orson Welles once said: “There are performers who are only good in full figure. Move in on Tati and he literally disappears.”

Of course, the films also appeal to anyone with a fondness for France and the French way of life. They celebrate the quaint, the eccentric and a lifestyle which Tati saw being replaced by a faster, more consumer and technology-driven one. Jour de Fete and M Hulot’s Holiday are lovely to look at, since they are set in unspoilt rural France, and they move at such a leisurely pace that you can soak up the detail of both the comedy and the setting.

Terry Jones, another Monty Python graduate, has said of Tati: “He was a visual genius. His films, without being silent, all have the qualities, the beauty and the richness of silent film.”

Even by the time he made his third film, Mon Oncle (1958), Tati was beginning to show signs of self-indulgence in his work. His subsequent films – PlayTime (1967),  Trafic (1971) and Parade (1973) – are reviled and revered in equal measure. But Jour de Fete and M Hulot’s Holiday are perfect comedies that showcase Tati’s comedy at its most pure – and most appealing.

* The Totally Tati retrospective is on at the Glasgow Film Theatre and the Edinburgh Filmhouse now. The BFI’s new box set of five Tati films is out now.

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The A-Z of Kane

As a new print of the film generally regarded as the greatest ever made is released, here’s my guide to the Orson Welles masterwork.

A-Z of Citizen Kane

A is for the American Film Institute which, in 2007, voted Citizen Kane the Greatest Movie of All Time – as it had also done in 1998.

B is for Boy Wonder, the nickname given to stage and radio star Orson Welles even before he made Citizen Kane (1941).

C is for ceilings. One of the innovations of Citizen Kane was the way in which the domineering title character was always shot from below, so that his power was always underlined (weaker characters were shot from above) – the result was that the ceilings of rooms were seen for the first time in the movies; in fact this was the first time the sets had had to have ceilings..

D is for debuts. Citizen Kane would have been a phenomenal achievement no matter who had made it but the fact that it was Welles’s debut as a movie director (and actor and producer) is astounding. He had to learn even the basics of filmmaking while he preparing Kane. Despite this – or perhaps because of his lack of technical experience and willingness to experiment – Welles subverted the rules of filmmaking and created a new vocabulary in the language of cinema.

E is for the end. Citizen Kane opens with the end of Kane’s story – his death – and then goes back to his humble beginnings.

F is for flashbacks. The story of Kane’s life is told through a series of flashbacks triggered by a newspaper reporter’s interviews with the tycoon’s former colleagues, ex-wife and friends.

G is for Gregg Toland, the cinematographer hired by Welles because of his flamboyance and unconventional style. One of Kane’s many innovations was “depth of field”, the method Toland devised of composing shots so that the screen was loaded with information and the figures and objects at the front of the screen were in focus at the same time as those at the back.

H is for Hearst, William Randolph – the American press baron who inspired the character and story of Citizen Kane. The film was essentially a thinly veiled biopic, which showed how power corrupted and how great egos are born – and grow out of control. Before the film was released, Hearst offered RKO Studios $800,000 (the cost of the film) to destroy the negative.

I is for innovation. Citizen Kane is packed full of new techniques, from the pioneering use of overlapping dialogue (which Welles brought from radio) to the ahead-of-its-time make-up which allowed the young star to convincingly age by 50 years during the course of the film.

J is for Judy Holliday. The scenes in which Susan Alexander is being bullied by Kane into being an opera singer are similar to those in the 1950 movie Born Yesterday, in which a gangster tries to turn his moll into a refined lady. By coincidence, Judy Holliday, that movie’s Oscar-winning star, was tested for the part of Susan in Citizen Kane.

K is for “King” Cole. The great pianist (and singer) Nat “King” Cole can be heard playing in the scene at the El Rancho nightclub where Susan is working.

L is for legacy. Citizen Kane stands as an astonishingly fresh piece of work nearly 70 years after it was made, and it has inspired countless filmmakers, among them Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg who pays homage to it in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

M is for Mercury Theatre, the stage company that Welles founded with John Houseman in New York in 1937. Known for its bold, original productions, Mercury Theatre branched out into radio drama – most famously its vivid 1938 dramatisation of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which, although broadcast as a Hallowe’en prank, caused a nationwide panic as thousands of Americans believed they were listening to news coverage of a real-life alien invasion.

N is for Neverland. Michael Jackson’s vast estate – a sort of mini-kingdom – is the closest modern-day equivalent to Kane’s Xanadu, where he stored and showed off “the loot of the world” – the art work, architecture and animals he collected from across the globe. The gothic Xanadu was inspired by Hearst’s gargantuan castle San Simeon which was stuffed with antiques and art and had its own zoo.

O is for Only One Oscar. Yup, The Greatest Film of All Time won only one Academy Award – for the screenplay written by Welles and Herman J Mankiewicz. In 2003, Welles’s statuette was about to be sold in an auction at Christie’s in New York (by Welles’s youngest daughter) but was voluntarily withdrawn so that the Academy could buy it back for $1, a deal which all Oscar winners have to agree to. It had been expected to fetch over $300,000.

P is for Parsons. Louella O Parsons was the Hearst newspaper group’s Hollywood gossip columnist who could make or break careers. When she heard that Welles’s film was really about her boss, she demanded to be shown it – and blew a gasket. It was her report to Hearst which triggered his pre-emptive strike of banning advertisements for the film from his papers, a move which led some cinema chains to cancel their bookings.

Q is for the QT. Several key scenes in Citizen Kane were filmed on the quiet, behind closed doors, so that studio executives couldn’t interfere with the production. The projection room scene, plus the interviews, were passed off as tests but Welles fully intended to use them in the movie – and he did.

R is for “rosebud”, the last word uttered by Kane as he dies in the opening scenes of the film. It is the quest to discover what “rosebud” was that drives the whole film as a reporter is assigned the job of getting to the bottom of the mystery by interviewing as many of Kane’s friends and associates as necessary.

S is for score. Bernard Herrmann’s evocative score – his first feature film score – contributed much to the sinister atmosphere of the film. He went on to compose the music for such diverse classics as The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) and Taxi Driver (1976).

T is for twenty-four, the age Welles was when he was making “the greatest film ever made”.

U is for unorthodox. A particularly unusual technique was devised by editor Robert Wise (later the director of The Sound of Music) to make the newsreel footage at the start of the film look authentic and grainy: he ran the film through cheesecloth filled with sand.

V is for vendetta. Hearst’s papers conducted a smear campaign against Welles in revenge for Citizen Kane; one rumour which circulated was that Welles was a communist.

W is for “will-they-won’t-they?”. The release of the film very nearly didn’t happen as RKO’s board buckled under pressure not just from Hearst but also from other studio heads, who felt the controversy would damage the industry. Finally, three months after its original scheduled release date, it opened in New York – the result of Welles pointing out to the studio that his contract gave him the right to sue if the film wasn’t shown within a certain period of time.

X is for x-tras. These included Alan Ladd (who would become a leading man the following year) as the pipe-smoking reporter at the end of the film.

Y is for years. The story of Citizen Kane spans an epic 65 years, from his childhood when he was sent to live in the care of the family lawyer, to his death as an isolated old man. For 50 of those years, Kane was played by Orson Welles.

Z is for the Ziegfeld Follies, the show in which William Randolph Hearst’s much-younger mistress, Marion Davies, was appearing when they first met. Hearst’s relationship with Davies differed from that of Kane and Susan Alexander in the movie in a few ways: although Hearst undoubtedly got Davies into movies, she was actually an accomplished comedienne, whereas her fictional alter ego was a pretty lousy opera singer. And while Susan marries and divorces Kane, Davies, whose movie career made her independently wealthy, remained devoted to her man (though they never married) until his death.
* A new print of Citizen Kane is showing at the GFT, Glasgow from October 30 until Thursday 5, and at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh from October 30 until Sunday 8.

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The Happier Holiday

Dope addict, punchbag for her partners, target of racial prejudice – Billie Holiday, who died 50 years ago at the age of 44, has long been universally known not just as jazz’s greatest singer but also one of its saddest casualties. The phenomenally gifted vocalist, whom Frank Sinatra credited as his “greatest single influence”, is associated in many people’s minds with tragedy, oppression, abuse and the blues. But the truth is that the iconic Lady Day was not – for much of her existence – a downtrodden, pathetic creature at all.
Just because the key events in Holiday’s life – a possible rape when she was ten years old, an enforced separation from her mother, working as a prostitute in her teens, getting hooked on heroin, spending time in jail and suffering terrifying racial abuse – could have made her a victim, it doesn’t automatically follow that she was. Holiday’s final years were undoubtedly tragic but one shouldn’t assume that everything that went before was too.
Her death has come to overshadow her life; the ebullience and life-affirming qualities inherent in many of her recordings and in her personality, as described by friends and colleagues, until her last decade are often overlooked, swept aside by society’s need to slot everyone into a category.
But Billie Holiday was far too complex a character to be pigeon-holed simply as one of life’s victims. For one thing, she was not the type of person to allow herself to be pushed around – at least by anyone other than her lovers. And if anyone tried, the chances are they would get a thick lip. On numerous occasions, especially in her flaming youth, Holiday squared up to bigots – walking away was not an option.
There are various tales of how Holiday reacted to instances of racial prejudice – and they all involve her taking decisive, often reckless, action. On the road with Artie Shaw’s all-white band in 1938, she knew that things would be tough below the so-called Mason-Dixon Line: rednecks in the South would tolerate black people as entertainment, but this being the land of lynchings and the Klan, they wouldn’t acknowledge them as human beings.
During one show, Holiday was going down a storm but when a voice from the audience yelled: “Have the nigger wench sing another song!”, her simmering rage exploded and, in front of a packed auditorium, she clearly mouthed an obscenity which, as Shaw later recalled, caused “all hell to break loose”.
Other stories involve barroom brawls and Lady Day – for all her fisticuffs and foul language, she was the most elegant of singers – inviting ignoramuses who slurred her to step outside for a fight. Her pianist Bobby Tucker later said: “She beat the crap out of a guy at the bar who called her ‘nigger bitch’.”
Despite having no fear about standing up to the thugs and bullies she came across when she was out in public, Holiday allowed herself to be beaten up by a string of violent male partners – and there’s never been much evidence of her defending herself against them in the way that she did with strangers. Dan Morgenstern, the leading jazz expert who knew Holiday in the 1950s, is one of a number of her acquaintances who believes that: “She had a strong masochistic streak. She wanted guys who would hurt her both physically and emotionally.”
The two sides of Holiday’s personality are clear from one of the songs that became inexorably linked with her: My Man. It’s very much a song of two halves – the first, in a minor key, is all about the singer’s troubles with her lover (“Two or three girls has he/That he likes as well as me/But I love him”); the second is in a major key, slightly faster and much more hopeful (“All my life is just despair/ But I don’t care/When he takes me in his arms/ The world is bright, alright”).
Holiday recorded it three times – once in each decade of her recording career – and by the second recording, in 1949, she had added the lines “He beats me too/What can I do?”. That this song, though written by someone else, summed up her own point of view is clear from the fact that she ended her autobiography with a quote from it: “Tired? You bet/ But all of that I’ll soon forget with my man .. “
Of course, Holiday’s wilfully self-destructive habit of choosing brutes as her romantic partners was mirrored by her self-destructive drug addiction which has become the main theme of the Billie Holiday story over the years. Aside from the physical toll that heroin took on her, it also sapped her battling spirit and her lust for life. It turned her, when she was in thrall to the drug, into a different person and it cost her many friends.
Holiday’s tragic image was partly her own creation. In 1955, desperate for money to finance her habit, and aware of the fact that there was a demand for confessional memoirs, she dictated her autobiography to journalist William Dufty. It’s a compelling read, with Holiday’s characteristically “salty” language suggesting its authenticity but the reality was that it was full of exaggerations and deliberate distortions on her part. She hoped that the sensational aspects – which, before the publishers got cold feet, were to include details of her sexual adventures with everyone from Tallulah Bankhead to Orson Welles – would attract Hollywood’s attention.
Indeed, it’s from the autobiography that much of the Holiday myth originates, as she allowed herself to come across as a victim. Even the title, Lady Sings the Blues, which was imposed by the publisher, is inaccurate: Holiday was not a blues singer; she rarely sang the blues.
Holiday’s tragic image was further consolidated in the public consciousness by the 1972 biopic, also entitled Lady Sings the Blues, which featured a harrowing performance by Diana Ross but had even less to do with the facts of Holiday’s life than her memoirs. Several key figures in her career, including Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, refused to allow their names to be used.
Perhaps Goodman and Shaw, who both met Holiday in her earliest years on the jazz scene, simply didn’t recognise in the Lady Sings the Blues character the insouciant, fun-loving girl they had known. Her friends from the 1930s and 1940s remember a bawdy young woman with a lust for life, and an appetite for sensation. Even in her final decade, the 1950s, there were still glimpses of her wild ways. Singer Annie Ross, who was one of the friends who stuck by her till the very end, recalls an afternoon in Paris where they drank their way down the Champs-Elysees, cafe by cafe, supposedly on a shopping expedition. After visiting a fancy boutique where they viewed tray after tray of jewellery, Lady Day tipped out her pockets to reveal to her young friend a stash of necklaces and other baubles.
But for proof positive that the happy-go-lucky, “don’t careish”, Billie Holiday existed before – and then alongside – the rather more troubled Lady Day, just listen to her legacy of recordings. Yes, you’ll feel pity for the later Holiday with the voice that has paid the price for her lifestyle, but you’ll also feel uplifted by the sheer joie-de-vivre she exuded throughout the 1930s and then on occasion until she died, on July 17 1959.

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