Bio: Having grown up in the back room of Chicago’s Katnip Klub on Lincoln Park West (“where no puss gets the boot”), Scair D. Cat was on particularly friendly terms with bartenders, bouncers and cooks. In fact, it was by helping out in the kitchen that he perfected a secret steak sauce he hoped to introduce to a bigger audience.
After receiving the blessing of the Klub’s management, Scair decided the sauce was ready for the big leagues and on a chilly winter day in 1952 skulked his way to Table One of the famous Pump Room restaurant at the Ambassador East Hotel, seeking to snag the chef’s attention.
But as Fate would have it, Joan Crawford and director David Miller were the human guests at Table One that day, discussing their upcoming project, the melodramatic thriller “Sudden Fear,” set in San Francisco. Crawford’s role as a playwright, who marries a younger man (Jack Palance) but discovers his treacherous true colors and carefully plots her retaliation, was one of her most demanding.
Crawford, eyes bulging and brows arched, took one look at Scair’s bulging eyes and arched brows, and convinced Miller that he should be cast as Alcatraz Joe. Scair was not the least bit interested in acting or Hollywood but Crawford won him over by promising that she would help promote his steak sauce on the West Coast as soon as filming wrapped. And Crawford made the ideal choice – Scair lends a shocking fierceness and rugged theatricality to the intense chase scenes toward the movie’s end.
True to her word, Crawford made several important introductions for her feline co-star. At the same time, Scair fell in love with the West Coast and began creating seafood sauces and recipes. He set up shop in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and became a consultant to restaurants such as Alioto’s. He and Crawford remained close friends.
Famed costume designer Edith Head knew that clothes should underscore an actor’s character, not upstage it. And she applied the same discipline to dealing with Hollywood’s elite, putting every ounce of effort into making them look their absolute best while deflecting attention from herself.
A shrewd approach along with her natural talent for design, a gift for navigating studio politics and a tremendous amount of hard work made her one of the movie industry’s most successful women.
In her 60-year career, at Paramount and Universal, she worked on more than 1,131 films, received 35 Academy Award nominations and won eight Oscars, more than any other woman. (Walt Disney, with 26 Oscars, holds the record for a man.)
This savvy lady with her tailored suits, neat little bun and statement specs comes out of the shadows and into the spotlight in “A Conversation With Edith Head,” which opened Friday night at LA’s Odyssey Theatre. And she’s spirited, strong, funny and flawed as played by actress Susan Claassen.
One of her peccadilloes was a disdain for modesty. “I’m not different from other designers, I’m the best,” Claassen tells the audience matter of factly. Another memorable Head aphorism: “You can have anything you want in life, if you dress for it.”
Tinseltown anecdotes and stories of working with the stars are sprinkled throughout the play, which is set in 1981. Head died in October of that year at age 83, still under contract to Universal, having just completed the Steve Martin film “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.”
The format includes questions from the audience as well as free advice on your sartorial choices. Since Claassen called me stunning and asked if I was a model, naturally I think the woman is the greatest genius known to Western civilization. 😉
But, joking aside, Claassen is brilliant in this role, capturing the character’s gestures, mannerisms and demeanor without mimicry or impersonation. Claassen reveals the enormous power Head wielded through her sketch pad and pencil as well as the sacrifices (15-hour days, six days a week in her heyday), self-doubt and sadness that were facets of her extraordinary life.
Claassen, who recently received an Ovation nomination for Lead Actress in a Play for this part, co-wrote the work with Paddy Calistro, author of the book “Edith Head’s Hollywood.” The idea came to Claassen while watching a TV biography about Head.
Says Claassen: “Not only do I bear a striking resemblance to Edith, but we share the same love for clothes and fashion. … There are many myths about her, but she was a discreet, tenacious personality. She knew whose hips needed clever disguising and made sure those legendary stars always looked the part.”
Head was a frequent collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock and added élan to the wardrobe of film noir stars, dressing, for example, Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity,” Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Blvd.,” Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious,” Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief,” Kim Novak in “Vertigo,” and Tippi Hedren in “The Birds.”
She also dressed Bette Davis as the glamorous actress Margo Channing in “All About Eve” and designed Elizabeth Taylor’s white ball gown in “A Place in the Sun.” In fact, she worked with nearly all the Hollywood greats, including Mae West, Clara Bow, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Robert Redford and Paul Newman.
When in 1967 Paramount chose not to renew her contract, she was hired by Universal, thanks to her friendship with Hitchcock, who perhaps really was her favorite director, despite her practical policy of naming her favorite director as the one for whom she was currently working.
Though Head’s motto was to accentuate the positive and camouflage the negative, the chapter of her childhood spent in the Nevada desert was good training for holding her own in Hollywood. She was, she said, used to dealing with scorpions.
Opening night coincided with what would have been Head’s 114th birthday so, after the show, party guests sipped champagne and ate red-velvet birthday cake, donated by Susie Cakes.
“A Conversation With Edith Head” is a guest production at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, 90025. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Nov. 13. (The play premiered in Tucson, Ariz., in 2002 and has since played in many US cities and abroad.) Tickets are $40. For more information: 310-477-2055; www.edithhead.biz.
Photos from the production are copyright of Mr E Man.
October’s reader giveaway, announced earlier this month, is Criterion’s anthology of French filmmaker Jean Vigo and a Chicago film fest T-shirt. To enter, just comment on any post this month. Here, critic Michael Wilmington discusses the director and his work.
He died at 29: Jean Vigo, the spirit of youth, of art, of cinematic rebellion, of France between the wars. He was a citizen of the world cinema, even though he directed only four films: two documentary shorts, a featurette, and one feature, all of them to some degree commercial and critical failures. And yet Vigo lives.
The son of a revolutionary who died in a prison, Vigo helped ignite an artistic and cinematic uprising. He and his co-conspirators, Jean Renoir, Pierre Chenal, Julien Duvivier, and Marcel Carné, created Poetic Realism, beautiful stylized portrayals of marginalized, often doomed characters, such as criminals. This style of filmmaking, along with German Expression, greatly influenced film noir.
The look of Vigo’s films inspired 1940s and ’50s Hollywood. His great collaborator was the cinematographer Boris Kaufman, a poet of light, who later shot “On the Waterfront” for Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men.”
Vigo’s works are records of the real – love and sex, wealth and poverty, French culture, French life as it was lived in the 1930s – and documents of the surreal, that mysterious land of our dreams.
He made movies about sunny resort cities and the bourgeoisie at play (1930’s “À propos de Nice), about a real-life Olympic champion swimmer (1931’s “Taris”), about schoolboys in revolt in a school run by monsters (1933’s “Zéro de Conduite”) and about two lovers and a wild old man on a barge on the river (1934’s “L’Atalante”).
“Zéro de Conduite,” a 44-minute featurette was based on Vigo’s memories of boarding school days, a nightmare of absurdities, tangled up with lyrical flights of freedom. The sarcastic treatment given the school’s bizarre academics is probably partly responsible for the film’s long banning in France (1933-45).
“L’Atalante” remains one of the most hypnotically beautiful and lyrical films ever made. Twice, in 1962 and 1992, “L’Atalante” was voted one of the 10 greatest films of all time in the Sight and Sound International film poll. It is now a national treasure in France.
Vigo died in 1934. His work was trashed and forgotten, then resurrected and restored a decade after his death, and seen all over the world. If you see these films, they will make you feel more alive. They will flood your heart with love, your eyes with beauty and your mind with poetry, mad comedy and dreams. There are only four Jean Vigo films, but they open up a world for us. If we let them.
This Criterion anthology offers excellent special features and of course the films:
“À propos de Nice” (1930, silent, English intertitles)
“Taris” (1931, English subtitles) With Jean Taris.
“Zéro de Conduite” (1933, English subtitles) With Jean Daste, Louis Lefebvre.
“L’Atalante” (1934, English subtitles) With Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, Jean Daste, Louis Lefebvre.
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan earned much praise from critics for his nod to Sergio Leone, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” a slow-burn search for a buried body led by a police team, a forensic doctor and a prosecutor with the killer in tow.
As the hunt drags on (the killer can’t remember the exact location), other secrets emerge from these richly drawn characters. Starring Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan and Taner Birsel.
“The Good Doctor” (US) might make you think twice about heading to the ER. Orlando Bloom is Dr. Martin Blake, ambitious, hard-working and a bit of a fish out of water as an Englishman working in California. He also has a pesky habit of playing God.
It’s intriguing, to be sure, but a shame that we never get any sense of why Blake goes to the dark side. Riley Keough co-stars as his trusting teenage patient; Taraji P. Henson is the head nurse, Michael Peña is the partying orderly. Directed by Ireland’s Lance Daly.
The fest’s After Dark horror-movie lineup, full of guts, gore and zombies galore, was expanded to 17 films and for the first time these titles were part of the official competition. Highlights included “Rabies,” Israel’s first slasher film and the first Cuban zombie film, Alejandro Brugues’ “Juan of the Dead,” which was an audience favorite.
I couldn’t fit “Juan” into my schedule, but enjoyed “Rabies” by Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales, a former critic. An ill-fated walk in the woods leads a man to beg for help from four strangers. At the same time, a Good Samaritan in another part of the woods sees the work of a crazed killer firsthand (his beautiful dog is slain) and tries to prevent more harm. Cops are called too but to no avail. Extremely entertaining with a whip-smart script.
Far less entertaining and rather a let-down was “The Whisperer in the Darkness” (US), from director Sean Branney with a screenplay by Andrew Leman based on an H.P. Lovecraft story. Shot in black and white as an ode to 1930s horror flicks, “Whisperer” is a movie you’re really hoping to like. Unfortunately, the stilted acting, tepid direction and feeble script all keep the movie earth-bound and draggy.
In a world where individualism is on the wane, welcome inspiration for living your own personal dream comes from fashion icon and legendary editor Diana Vreeland. Drink in her influence when you see “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” (US), a movie full of personal history, pure whimsy and gorgeous images. No matter where you fall on the style spectrum, you’ll enjoy this first-rate film by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who won the fest’s Silver Hugo for her work.
Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss” (US) looks at the far-reaching repercussions of a 2001 murder case in which three people were killed, one man was executed and another is serving a 40-year prison sentence.
Herzog told the Los Angeles Times: “I think in this particular case, with this very senseless crime, so senseless it’s staggering, what fascinated me was that it points to a decay in family values and the cohesion of society, all these things that looked so big and beyond this case. It was not a question of proving [the perpetrators’] guilt or innocence.” Enthralling throughout.
Werner Herzog image from The Guardian; Riley Keough image from 411mania
Chicago saw the installation this summer of a 26-foot-tall tacky statue of Marilyn Monroe by J. Seward Johnson, so maybe it’s fitting that the city’s film fest hosted two Marilyn flicks, both much more elegant than the gargantuan “Seven Year Itch” tribute.
Simon Curtis’ “My Week with Marilyn” (UK) offers a glimpse into a brief period in the troubled actress’ life: her 1956 trip to London to shoot “The Prince and the Show Girl” in which she co-starred with Sir Laurence Olivier.
The source material is “The Prince, the Showgirl and Me,” a memoir by Colin Clark, an assistant director on the film and son of art historian Sir Kenneth Clark (of “Civilisation” fame). Curtis brings the memoir to life with sumptuous cinematography and spellbinding, Oscar-worthy performances from Michelle Williams as Marilyn, Kenneth Branagh as Olivier and Eddie Redmayne as Colin Clark.
“MWWM” also explores profound changes in the world of film acting as the Stanislavski/Method school took hold of Hollywood and clashed with British style, still deeply rooted in stage tradition.
Darkly funny, quirky and delightful to watch was the story of a modern-day Marilyn, “Nobody Else But You,” by Gérald Hustache-Mathieu. Sophie Quinton plays Candice Lecoeur, a luscious weathergirl in a remote French village whose life oddly parallels Marilyn’s and in a “Laura”-like way becomes the focus of a murder mystery.
Hustache-Mathieu’s most brilliant achievement is the unlikely mix of disparate mood and tone – farce, black humor, drama – fluidly, splendidly coming together. The audience loved it and high-energy Hustache-Mathieu was humbly charming at the post-screening Q&A.
In writer/director Julia Leigh’s erotic reworking of the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” (Australia) we meet another stunning blonde: Emily Browning as Lucy, a desperate college student using her looks to make a living in the sex industry. Though I admired Browning’s performance, the movie was disappointingly sluggish and dull.