Joan Crawford´s best performances:

28 Mar

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Joan Crawford was one of Hollywood´s top legends and one of the greatest faces ever to appear on the big screen, and even though her place in film history is more than secure – her legacy is everlasting!− people tend to overlook  her dramatic abilities over the uber-glamorous and beautiful persona she displayed on screen and off. In this list, we take a look at her 15 best performances, ranging from the silent days to the liberated 60s, an accomplishment in durability that few other stars ever achieved.

15) The Unknown (1927)

Mr. Chaney was known as a generous man to young actors. He certainly was to me”- J. C. on Lon Chaney.

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Starring Lon Chaney and directed by Tod Browning (he would also direct Dracula and Freaks) “The Unknown” is one the strangest mainstream films ever made, and one of the shortest, running less than an hour. Joan Crawford gets the juicy supporting role of Nanon, the young and beautiful daughter of the circus owner and also the assistant and target of the armless knife thrower Alonzo (Chaney). The bizarre plot tells the story of Alonzo, a dangerous and insane criminal fugitive from the law, whose only chance is to disguise himself completely as an armless man  strapping his arms with bandages, and work in a circus in Madrid, to avoid getting caught. Alonzo masterfully pretends not to have arms and no one suspects thus hiding another disturbing physical attribute that might give him away: his double-thumbed hands. Luckily for him, Nanon has an almost pathological dread at being touched by men and becomes very fond of him. Although nearly impossible to steal a movie from the great Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford lights up the screen using her huge eyes to full advantage in order to express a wide range of emotions aptly conveyed for the silent screen. Like most of Chaney films, this film was an unquestionable success and provided much needed attention to young starlet Joan Crawford in what can be considered her first notable dramatic role.

14) Queen Bee (1955)

“Queen Bee owed so much to Tenesse Williams, I felt like a Carte Blanche Dubois” – J.C.

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Joan Crawford at her evil best, and undoubtedly, her portrayal of Eva Phillips can be listed among cinema`s top bitches. A role that seems to fit like a glove to the post-Mommie Dearest image of Crawford we have forged, she plays the ruthless southern socialite to the hilt, beautifully dressed by Jean Louis (actually nominated for an Academy Award for Best B&W Costume design) and deliciously exploits her fierce physical attributes: her short hair, the thick eyebrows and the devouring overdrawn mouth plus her straightforwardly aggressive, cynical attitude. The rather ordinary plots follows the story of the domineering Eva and how she destroys everyone around her until she finds he own deserved and tragic demise. A true star in every sense, Crawford powerfully carries this otherwise weak film, giving a solid performance that is so over the top that is almost – but not quite – a parody of her own current tough image. In fact, her adopted daughter Christina said this role was the closest to the way she really was, leaving the theater midway through the screening of Queen Bee − Eva Phillips being too realistic for her to endure. Joan Crawford had approval of director, screenplay, hairstyle, make-up and costumes for this film and for the next one, “Autumn Leaves”, both of which she had negotiated with Columbia.

13) Our dancing daughters (1928)

“Joan Crawford was doubtless the best example of the dramatic flapper− the girl you see at the smartest night clubs… toying iced glasses, with a remote, faintly bitter expression – dancing deliciously− laughing a great deal with wide, hurt eyes” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Her first pivotal dramatic role (first out of five)* firmly stablished her as a star and she instantly joined the ranks of Clara Bow and Colleen Moore as flapper per excellence. Even though Crawford did not coin the term flapper, nor was it coined with her name in mind, she stepped into the role and lived it, becoming the first time (and certainly not the last one) where her private self and the public self would become intertwined, branding her care-free image in the mind of movie-goers for the time being. A consummate dancer, Joan was allowed to show off her talents by dancing the Charleston on a table, an essential composition in the Crawford persona. Flat chested, wide-eyed and sporting a short hairstyle, Joan Crawford was a step away from her definite look, but the charm of a real star quite clearly shines through this 1928 film.  She plays dangerous Diana, a girl who seems to care only about having fun, but deep inside is quite virtuous (and thus the usual tramp-turned wife endings that so appeased the censors). The could sin all they wanted, as long as they bad girl got punished and the good girl got married, at least in the public’s mind. This sexually daring film would lead to even more daring roles in the liberated but short-lived pre-code era; and her flapper image would eventually take her to the dancing lady persona, which she used to great advantage throughout the early to mid-thirties.

*Joan Crawford´s 5 pivotal dramatic roles where the ones which marked turning points in her career, and they were: Our Dancing Daughters (1928) for which she became a star, Grand Hotel (1932) for which she became a super-star, The Women (1939) which resurrected her career, Mildred Pierce (1945) she got the Oscar! And Whatever happened to Baby Jane (1962) that also resurrected her career.

12) What ever happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

“She said Miss Crawford not with a tone of respect, but with more of a sneer. I thought of her as Bette, but she never once called me Joan” – J.C. on Bette Davis

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Joan Crawford`s fifth – and last – pivotal dramatic role and the one that revitalized the later part of her career, even though it meant for her plunging into low budget horror movies. Joan effectively underplays the effervescent Davis in this grotesque masterpiece, directed by Robert Aldrich and currently enjoying a revival thanks to the following generated after the airing of the TV series Feud created by Ryan McMurphy, dealing with the legendary rivalry between Davis and Crawford. Davis got her 10th Academy Award nomination for her brutal portrayal of Baby Jane Hudson. Crawford, playing the recluse Blanche Hudson, was not nominated, much to her disappointment. Blanche Hudson represents the quintessential Crawford image crafted throughout her career, that of the ultimate sufferer being mistreated and tortured by the great punisher of the screen Bette Davis. All of their previous roles prepared them for this notable picture.

11) Autumn Leaves (1956)

“When I was a girl I could not have imagined myself not being young. It seemed getting older would take forever. I didn`t even give it a thought. Later, time went by faster…” – J.C.

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Like a bunch of her films from the 50s, this one starts off like a soapy, typical melodrama telling the cliché story of the older woman (Joan Crawford) having a relationship with a younger man (Clift Robertson). Millicent`s (Crawford) physic is tough, with her short hear, thick eyebrows and huge mouth, but she has been single much too long, taking care of her ill and elderly father until he passed. Then she was left alone, working as a typist and living modestly in a bungalow having no one to cure her loneliness, except her landlady friend, Liz. She is hungry for love − but also apprehensive − and her enormous eyes are wonderful at giving away that vulnerability needed in this role, for it is almost camp, but not quite. Directed by Robert Aldrich, the movie soon changes direction and jumps into a study of mental illness, its implications and unconditional love. Few people knew how to suffer like Joan Crawford. In Autumn Leaves she finally meets the man of her dreams, only ten years younger, to find out shortly after they got married that he has been lying compulsively to her and is quickly falling into schizophrenia. She gets beaten-up, heartbroken and humiliated and the film allows her to display a wide range of emotions, including the necessary hysterics.

10) Grand Hotel (1932)

“I never made a greater film in all the rest of my career, which was a very long time, even including Mildred Pierce” – J.C.

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Joan Crawford`s second pivotal dramatic role and the one that catapulted her to super-stardom. Grand Hotel was and still is one of the grandest films ever made, mainly because it showcases old Hollywood`s legendary glamour at its very greatest. Although her name got third billing, she did not care, because she knew she was making history with this film, the first one to bring together many powerful stars and well known secondary character actors. It was Thalberg`s idea to make an all-star film in a desperate attempt to sell tickets in the darkest days of the Depression era, stating that for the price of one, you got to see Garbo, the Barrymores, Crawford, Beery and others. Joan Crawford, the eternal working girl, gets the role of a lifetime playing Flaemmchen, the stenographer, hired by the brute Beery to work for him in Berlin´s Grand Hotel. She was wonderfully dressed by Adrian and even though is a bit difficult to upstage Garbo or John Barrymore; she does so, almost effortlessly. As time goes by, Greta Garbo´s whining prima donna is a bit annoying and no matter how divine she was this simply was not her best role. Joan is credible, subtle and efficient with her acting, making it clear that she has been around a bit, has grown tough as nails for that, but her heart still remained soft.

“It was perfect. A great script. Our director, Eddy Goulding, was perfect. And Adrian, dear Adrian. He was the greatest costume designer of them all. There will never be a greater one. Adrian dressed Garbo and me, and he made sure we were dressed fabulously, but always perfectly in character”− J.C.

9) Paid (1930)

“Just wait until you see Joan Crawford in this powerful dramatic role! The story is absorbing and Joan is simply grand! – Photoplay

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Norma Shearer, the reigning queen of MGM during the thirties turned down the role due to pregnancy and was assigned to Joan Crawford, who never cared much about being given Shearer´s leftovers, as long as they were good. This early talkie* and pre-code film represents the first serious dramatic role of Joan Crawford and the one in which she begun to shape her distinctive look, accentuating her big eyes and lips. Her haunted gaze is quite powerful and her lack of make-up in some scenes is quite shocking as well, for the fans that are used to see Joan Crawford dripping in furs and wearing incredible dresses. Actually, Paid also marked the first time that glamour was not a prerequisite for a Crawford movie. She is raw and alive and full of grudge, just like you have never seen her before. She plays a prison inmate waiting for her release to get revenge, and the film is full of pre-code moments! – The film was originally called Within the law and some people consider it a proto-noir, for the distinct cinematography, themes and general depressed mood.

*MGM resisted the change to sound more than other studios, under the premise that “silents were to stay” according to genius producer and husband to Norma, Irving Thalberg.

8) Mildred Pierce (1945)

“So many people have written that I was a star and not an actress. They wrote that Bette Davis was an actress and a star, a real actress. I knew I was as much an actress as she was. But I wasn´t as hurt as you might think because I loved being called a star, even more, being a star. But it was nice with Mildred Pierce to be certified as an actress” –J.C.

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Joan Crawford´s fourth pivotal dramatic role and the one that resurrected her career – yet again! Noir film suited Joan´s strong looks from the 40s perfectly and she adapted to the genre smoothly, so much that most of Crawford´s best films fall into the Noir category. After a string of weak pictures shortly before her release from MGM, she fought hard to get this role, which at first was turned down by Bette Davis, who thought it would not be right for her. Mildred Pierce is actually more of a Stanwyck vehicle, but Crawford made it her own. She plays a hardworking mother who loves her greedy and selfish daughter so much that she cannot see the viper she really is, until it´s too late. Michael Curtiz, well known monster in Hollywood, directed the film masterfully and although is not Joan`s best performance, she got an Oscar for it and Mildred Pierce became the biggest hit of her career. Joan Crawford was back and swathed in more fur than ever.

7) Strange Cargo (1940)

“The acting is high-grade with Joan Crawford giving her best performance to date” – Film Daily

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Joan Crawford´s 8th and last film with chauvinistic pig Clark Gable. After her career resurrected with her unsympathetic role in The Women, Joan jumped to another chance to play a tough lady, this time, one much tougher than glamorous Crystal Allen. The movie is exotically set in the French Guianas, and Joan could not have been better at being bitchy and caustic! Her look of disgust and scorn at gross Monseiur Pig´s advances (Peter Lorre) is truly hurtful, enhanced by the harsh lighting and thin, evil eyebrows.  The last time audiences watched Crawford stripped from all her glamour and make-up was nearly a decade before, when she starred in Paid. In Strange Cargo, even though it seems to be a regular Crawford – Gable formula, she quickly gets rid of all glamour and pursues her lover through the jungle and then on the sea to salvation. After The Unknown, this could be considered Crawford`s strangest film (strangest serious film, that  is) because it deals with religion and a messiah-like figure who appears from nowhere and just teaches good values to a bunch of guys who were deep in  the gutter, leading them all to some sort of enlightenment. Miss Crawford gives a fantastic performance as the feline Julie under the capable direction of Frank Borzage and an impeccable supporting cast.

6) The women (1939)

“Even the dog is a bitch” – George Cukor

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Joan Crawford`s third pivotal dramatic role and the one that resurrected her career thus far. The career-wrecking term “box-office poison” was labeled on some of the 30s greatest stars, such as Garbo, Dietrich, Hepburn, West, Shearer, Francis and Joan Crawford – among others. It was an article in the magazine Independent Film Journal that on May 3, 1938 sentenced that even though no one questioned their craft, for some reason their box office appeal had diminished considerably. After a few unsuccessful pictures, Crawford`s career was thought to be dead, or soon to be dead. She decided to take a risk and go against the usual Crawford formula and play an unsympathetic supporting role in a film starring arch-rival and Queen of MGM Norma Shearer. Directed by Joan´s favorite director George  Cukor, known for his ability to direct women, and co-starred hilarious Rosalind Russel, The Women became a sensation worldwide, resurrecting Crawford career and changing its direction towards the more serious and heavier dramatic roles that were to come.  She plays Crystal Allen, a perfumes sales girl, not too young but not too old either and full of sex appeal who steals away Shearer´s husband.  A star studded cast, the movie is a magnificent example of the magic of old Hollywood and a good taste of what real divas were made of.

5) Rain (1932)

“Rain was an ordeal for me. At the time, I thought it was my worse performance yet, but now I think I was wrong. Because of my motion picture background, all of those Broadway actors treated me like I really was Sadie Thompson.”- J.C.

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Crawford least favorite film and the one that demanded even a public apology from her. Hypocritically puritanical America was not ready to see hard-working Joan Crawford play a whore, and quite realistically too. She´s brazen brazen! Heavily made-up, dripping in attitude and projecting a voice worth of Garbo´s talkie debut, Joan Crawford is stunningly beautiful and truly, a star to behold. Her entrance is fantastic, self-confident and masterfully made, worth of the time when there were real movie stars having entrances according to their statuses. Joan`s Sadie Thompson can be considered her best acting piece up to that time, and by far. It was Joan Crawford´s first loan out by MGM to United Artist. Directed by Lewis Milestone, Rain represents the opposite of films aging poorly and becoming too old fashioned, her raw and powerful Sadie Thompson, along with the beautiful B&W photography and the sometimes unconventional shots of the tropical Pago Pago (actually Catalina Island, but whatever) make this one of Joan´s best films during her early talkie period, and the one that really became better and better with time, proving strongly that Rain was way ahead of its still embryonic movie audience.

4) Sudden Fear (1952)

“The scenario… is designed to allow Miss Crawford a wide arrange of quivering reactions to vicious events, se she passes through the stage of starry-eyed love, terrible disillusionment, fear, hatred and finally hysteria. With her wide eyes and forceful bearing, she is the woman for the job.” −  New York Herald Tribune

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After a string a mediocre pictures at Warner Brothers she asked to be released from her contract and joined RKO for this noir masterpiece. She thought the script was good and when the studio could not meet her salary request, she reduced it, opting for a percentage of the profits. The suspenseful film adds nothing new to already mature noir genre, but it is the way is done and acted that makes it so effective. Joan Crawford plays Myra Hudson; a mature, successful playwright who falls in love with an actor she had previously dismissed from one her plays, in this case odd looking Jack Palance. It is the romance of a lifetime, until she finds out that he is planning to murder her along with his bitchy girlfriend, Irene played by Gloria Graham. Crawford gives an outstanding performance as the paranoid wife, planning her way out of the mess by seeking revenge but ultimately leaving it to destiny to punish those who have wronged her. Joan was nominated for an Academy Award and the film was a huge success, boosting for a while her waning career. Bette Davis was also nominated that year for her performance in The Star, a caustic portrait of an aging motion picture star, supposedly based on Joan Crawford´s life, which she vehemently denied, claiming that Davis looked too old and overweight to be playing her. That year, the Academy Award went to Shirley Booth, for Comeback little Sheba.

3) A woman`s face (1941)

“I went directly to Mr. Mayer and asked him to buy the property f or me. It was a wonderful part, and I knew I could be great in it.” – J.C.

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A role for which Joan should have won an Oscar for it is, truly, a great performance. Joan took a liking to risky roles and here she plays a disfigured blackmailer, who is lucky enough to blackmail a surgeon`s wife. Directed by George Cukor, this noir film is notably less dark than other films of the genre and it is mostly set in rural areas, unlike the asphalt jungle setting commonly associated with it. Joan Crawford´s big, expressive eyes are particularly useful tools in this picture; for they seem to crack open her rough, disfigured skin to shed light of the tortured human being inside, hungry for love and acceptance. Yes, she tells all that with her eyes in her first close-up. A woman´s face represents an early example of a glamorous and beautiful movie star – dependent on her looks, in a considerable way – making herself deliberately unattractive, even monstrous in order to achieve a performance. Joan Crawford, however, stays unattractive only half of the picture: her beauty is restored after several procedures and she once again has the luminous, symmetric face we all know. The glamour queen that strips herself from beauty in order to get an Oscar would become cliché, especially since Elizabeth Taylor notorious performance as Martha in Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? in1966.

2) Possessed (1947)

“I loved doing that film, and I felt lucky to be nominated for an Oscar, me and the part.” –J.C.

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Her back to back successes with Mildred Pierce and Humoresque gave Joan Crawford green light to jump into what she considered the most challenging role she ever played. The part of Louise was originally though as a Bette Davis´s vehicle, but her films were bombing at the box-office and she was on maternity leave, so it was assigned to Joan, who played Louise as a peculiar and lonely nurse whose obsession with a free spirited man (Van Heflin) triggers her gradual descent into madness. A celebrated noir masterpiece, Possessed stands out as one of the best and most electrifying films of Joan Crawford, achieving audience and critical praise upon its release and getting her an Academy Award nomination for best actress*. The somber and expressionist lighting suited Joan deranged and strong looks, quite unglamorous and certainly raw and powerful, and some scenes are so dark that it could almost pass as a horror film.

*That year, the Oscar went to Loretta Young for A farmer´s daughter.

1) Humoresque (1946) 

Humoresque is undoubtedly Crawford`s finest performance” – Lawrence J. Quirk.

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Humoresque can be considered one of Joan´s best movies in all her career, and definitely a must-see noir film. John Garfield plays Paul Borey, the struggling violinist who finds a mature and rich benefactor, Helen Wright (Crawford) who propels him to stardom as a music virtuoso. Joan Crawford gives a depthful performance as the complex and alcoholic socialite who falls in love with her protégé, only to have her life spiral down into the depths of depression. Helen Wright is irrationally jealous and inherently self-destructive and thinks her affair with Borey – now famous and sought after – doomed for failure like all her previous relationships. There is a subtlety in Joan´s acting – never quite matched before – every gesture being meaningful, every shadow signaling somber forthcomings, every broken glass pulling her further down the abyss. The film is a stylish noir, with wonderful costumes and soundtrack, great acting and memorable scenes such as the last close-ups of Helen as she approaches the ocean – there are tears in her eyes – walking while the background music plays Borey in concert and she gazes at the waves that would soon drag her to death. No doubt, it became Joan´s third biggest box-office hit of her career and a film that she would usually project in her own little movie theater. A nearly perfect film, if it weren´t so painfully depressing…

The 42nd Academy Awards (1970)

21 Feb

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The years 1968 and 1969 had been, professionally, quite disastrous for the Taylor-Burton couple. Even more so for the 40s approaching Liz, whose appeal at the box office had diminished considerably, specially since the bizarre Boom! (1968) opened to terrible reviews. It was the first Taylor film to be such a failure at the box office and marked the end of her career, acting wise.

Richard Burton, however, had one great success starring in the World War II action film Where eagles dare (1968) which earned an enormous profit, but the future seemed blurry for the famed couple as times were changing and they became progressively old-fashioned and too expensive to hire. The glamour queens were gone, replaced by a group of younger actresses with washed-up faces that looked more like the girl-next-door than a movie star. Garbo was long gone, Dietrich was singing around the globe and Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were mostly playing whatever roles they could get in cheap movies. Unusual looking women like Barbra Streisand, Mia Farrow and Liza Minelli were the new box office queens. Some heartthrobs were now odd looking as well, like Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman.  The ermines and orchids were out.

Even though Elizabeth Taylor`s movies were not money makers, her star power was still immense and she was more than willing to put it to use and show the newbies what real stars look like. In 1970 she was asked by the Academy Awards to be one of the main presenters – that of the best movie of the year, and she was decided to knock them all dead!

In addition, Richard had been nominated for the fifth time for his role in Anne of a thousand days (1969) and they were sure he was going to win. Moreover, this would be the first Academy Award show to be televised via satellite to an international audience and to this date is the highest rated of the televised Academy Awards ceremoniesElizabeth_Taylor_Burton_Dia_100.

Not long before, the couple had famously purchased the biggest and most expensive diamond in the world – outbidding the Sultan of Brunei and Aristotle Onassis- from Cartier for $1.1 million. It was so big that Elizabeth found it difficult to wear it as a ring and spent an additional $80,000 to make a necklace of diamonds for the now called Taylor-Burton diamond.

Decided to look her best, the violet-eyed diva called her dear friend, the legendary Edith Head to design a dress to display not only her ample bosom but also the egg-sized bauble. Worth mentioning is that Edith Head won a record of eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design. Her relationship with Elizabeth had started back in the set of  A place in the sun (1951) where she created magnificent costumes for her and now, almost 20 years later, she was going to create another masterpiece: a blue-violet chiffon dress with a pronounced cleavage  that would showcase Elizabeth`s major assets: her beauty and her diamond.

Taylor was not the only one sprucing up; Richard Burton had stopped his copious drinking and slimmed down and tanned and looked quite handsome indeed. Burton was sure that spending time in Puerto Vallarta made them always look their best and that is just what they did before the Academy Awards: spend time sunbathing, dieting and relaxing.

Just the year before, the Burtons attended the famous Scorpio Ball – which was Grace Kelly`s birthday extravaganza − and Taylor notoriously upstaged her and the entire party. The Princess later said that “Elizabeth was unbearably beautiful”. For the party, Elizabeth decided to wear publicly for the first time the newly acquired Taylor-Burton diamond along with the Krupp diamond and a specially designed black-hooded robe with shinning scorpions beaded on it. Liz & Dick still had it.

The night of the Academy Awards the uber glamorous Burtons dazzled everyone: Elizabeth Taylor looking extraordinarily stunning and wearing her biggest diamonds left everyone in awe. Her beauty had always been shocking to people to the point that some would jump over her car just to get a glimpse of her fabled face and legendary eyes; but this time she seemed to glow like a blue-violet rainbow. She was extremely tanned and her breasts were truly “apocalyptic”- quoting Burton, who was stone-cold sober, absolutely elegant and a great accessory to Elizabeth, who always knew how to use men to her advantage

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Photographers frenzied over them just like during Le Scandale nearly a decade ago almost ignoring the other celebrities – to call them stars would not be appropriate, because they were not. Even the supposed-to-be star of the night, Barbra Streisand was completely upstaged. The Burtons and especially Elizabeth Taylor were the last real stars and they continued to cause riots wherever they went. Richard thought that after so many years of marriage it would cool down a bit, but it did not. Their movies were bad, but the fights á la Virginia Woolf, illnesses, jet setting around the globe and extreme excesses –in the age of the hippies they would nonchalantly spend nearly 600 million dollars – made them and would continue to make them STARS.

The night however memorable, turned out bittersweet: Richard Burton would lose again, this time to John Wayne. He would actually never win, making him one of the greatest actors in history to never get an Oscar, not even an honorary one, like Garbo did in 1955. People would continuously gather at their table to compliment Elizabeth`s beauty, to see the diamond and to comfort Richard for such an injustice.TAYLOR1 (2)

The facts that Elizabeth Taylor won the Oscar for Butterfield 8 in 1961 and that Richard Burton did not win the Oscar for Who`s afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1967 are clear indicators that the Academy Awards are not necessarily parameters for what good acting is or is not. It almost seems like Hollywood resented him for having taken Elizabeth into a torrid adulterous affair that nearly sunk Twentieth Century Fox and brutally smashed the puritan−hypocritical morals and values of a generation.

The Burtons not only showcased glamour and charisma, they also knew how to handle these beatle-like reactions that would traumatize others. Even Frank Sinatra was utterly impressed at the amount of attention they were getting, and he was not precisely unknown either. They waved like royalty to the crowds which would gather almost anywhere in the world (Dahomey, a small African country would be one of the exceptions) and fulfilled their duties as stars too well: the furs, the Kalizma yatch, the fleet of Rolls Royce, their unattainable beauty and the jewels, lots of them. They gave the hungry public what they wanted and much more.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton slapped Hollywood in the night of the Academy Awards with a dose of Old Hollywood System and showed everyone what legends were made of, and why there would never be another couple of mega-stars like them.

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Liz Taylor & Richard Burton At Oscars

CLEOPATRA PART III: Pinewood, the tracheotomy and the Oscar- at last.

16 Jun

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Elizabeth Taylor and husband Eddie Fisher arriving at the Academy Awards Ceremony, 1961.

As mentioned before, filming of “Cleopatra” was to be done abroad for tax purposes and Fox found no better place than Pinewood Studios in England (they had considered Cinettita in the first place but the Studio was afraid to be robbed by the Italian crew members) The weather, of course, was incompatible with both the diva and the sets. The task to create Egypt was a hard one and remember that in those days there was no blue or green screen to create fantastic landscapes; everything was hand-made. Designer Oliver Messel created amazing costumes for Elizabeth Taylor, but she was so sick that she was literally carried to set, dressed, photographed and taken back to the Rochester Hotel. Most people would agree that the Messel costumes were far better that Sharaff´s later designs for the released movie, but I disagree. The Messel Costumes are wonderful, truly beautiful, but to me, Elizabeth does not look like a queen in any of them! She could have been anyone! (Anyone important, of course). Sharaff´s designs make sure you know that Elizabeth is THE big cheese in the picture.

Mamoulian was chosen to direct because he was well acquainted with temperamental divas such as Greta Garbo and people thought that his gentle manners would be appropriate to dominate Taylor. As it turned out, he hardly saw her, because she was so sick all the time. Mamoulian then arranged to shoot around her, but since the whole movie was a vehicle to capitalize on Elizabeth´s gargantuan popularity, his efforts were futile.

As the weather got worse, so did Elizabeth´s health. She was finally found unconscious in her hotel room and according to some sources, the cigarette on her finger had burnt to the bone. Luckily for her, a party was being given downstairs and the Queen´s doctor assisted Elizabeth until an ambulance was ready. The star was dramatically taken to the hospital were a crowd remained outside praying and wishing the best for her.

I am sure that Spyros Skouras,President of the Fox,  was the one about to die. The press delivered the madness to the world as the million-dollar-violet-eyed-diva was dying. Some newspapers printed the death of Elizabeth Taylor and Fox had not even started with the real problems.

Joan Collins claims that she was called to replace Taylor in case of her passing. Others say that Gina Lollobrigida was the replacement, but gladly, none of them got the role: Elizabeth´s pneumonia got so bad that the doctors had to perform a tracheotomy to save her life thus living a huge scar in her beautiful throat.

Elizabeth Taylor was a sociological phenomenon, because very few actresses, if not none, could had achieved such a great combination of virtues like beauty, talent, wealth, temperament, glamour, intelligence to such a high and perfect degree. There had been other extremely beautiful movie stars but none of them was as famous – or infamous – celebrated admired and stalked the way Elizabeth Taylor was. In the 1920s Barbara Lamarr was “too beautiful to live” and her flapper personality dim the light of her life way too soon: she died at 29 in obscure circumstances, allegedly a tubercolusis but also related to her heroin addiction, that had helped caused the trouble. Garbo appeared not so long after, but she was too temperamental and I am afraid she wasn’t the brightest one and not nearly the most cultured one. She was absolutely stunning in films, but in private life she did not take much care of her appearance. At hotels she would order olive oil (for her skin) and salt (for her teeth) and that was it.

Marlene Dietrich, even though beautiful, was more of a photography trick than a real extraordinary beauty. Hedy Lamarr in the late 30s was really something. She was exceedingly beautiful and much too smart to be handled. Studios did not know what to do with her and she was above the average so I don’t think she was on the same page with everybody. After all, she was friends with Marlene Dietrich, the ultra-snob-bitch. Later . Lana Turner can be considered to be the epitome of the Hollywood mega-star type: she was blond, beautiful, talented, and very glamorous and took care of her own legend. She married too many times, had great failures and great successes, had some big scandals (really big ones) and was stalked by the press.

Lana Turner, one of MGM´s real biggies was mixed up with the mob, was involved in the murder of a gangster, there were drugs, there were sex scandals, I mean she really loved to be a larger than life celebrity and played it to the hilt – much á la Joan Crawford. She was never to be seen wearing anything less than fabulous and was very kind to her fans and had no problems posing for still under those hot lights for endless hours.

Elizabeth Taylor was going to overdo everything which was done before and would give it her personal lavender touch. Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher were very famous in the late 50s and early 60s, but none of them knew that it was just the beginning of Hollywood´s greatest scandal.

Elizabeth´s continuous state of illness from the very beginning had cost Fox millions of dollars: the movie which was at first budgeted to a rather modest  two million dollars started to spiral out of control and Spyros Skouras was accused of madness for his almost blind trust in “Cleopatra´s future success. Finally, production had to be shut down. Elizabeth had to rest for a few months.

She went back to sunny America to recover and never looked better! Elizabeth Taylor was at the peak of her legendary beauty and the huge scar slashing down her throat did not diminish her appeal; it brutally enhanced it. She was a survivor in the eyes of the whole world and she was loved again and not to be frown upon anymore. Her home-wrecker image was banished and, of course, she got the Oscar that year.

Wearing a delicate bell-shaped dress and one hell of a hairdo, a cigarette in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, the huge scar in her throat and her chic fur coat she stole the night of the Academy Awards of 1961. She won the Oscar for best actress for her role of call-girl Gloria Wandrous in the famous film “Butterfield 8”. She was truly shocked and could barely speak when receiving the award from super-hot Yul Brynner.

The Oscar winning actress was to return to the screen as the million dollar Queen, magazines claimed, and Pinewood was scratched out of the list. Cinecitta was the next studio were Cleopatra would begin all over again…

Some of Oliver Messel´s costumes:

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CLEOPATRA PART II: Monster Liz and the record breaking contract

16 Jun

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 Already in the Mike Todd days there were plans of buying Elizabeth out of her contract with MGM, but like many of his bombastic projects, this came to nothing when he tragically died in an airplane accident. “The Liz” the plane´s name crashed on the mountains. Elizabeth was devastated but she also had a contract to fulfill. She finished Tenesse Williams´ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” giving one of her best performances, but lost the Oscar. Some people believe that it was a punishment from her peers, because 6 months after Mike´s death she was dating his best friend: singer Eddie Fisher whom was married to America´s sweetheart Debbie Reynolds. Labeled a home-wrecker she went abroad to start filming the macabre “Suddenly, Last Summer” – also by Tenesse Williams; and after it was completed she had only one movie left, and that was “Butterfield 8”.

 Meantime, Twentieth Century Fox was in trouble: they were not making enough money and needed a blockbuster to stay alive. In 1956 Darryl Zanuck had announced his resignation as head of production after years of success due to personal problems, and his resignation was just the beginning of the problems that Fox was to face.  Current President Spyros Skouras was looking desperately for another production executive and got Buddy Adler whom along with film producer Walter Wanger decided to save time and money: they would remake a successful film from previous years. They decided to revive Theda Bara´s “Cleopatra” from 1917. The film marked the pinnacle of the career of the screen´s most famous vamp, and also its quick descent into oblivion. The complete film is considered to be lost, although a small fragment has appeared not so long ago providing an amazing glimpse into one of the most famous lost films.

 According to Brenda Maddox, the recent success of epic films and Elizabeth´s power at the box-office were the main reasons to choose Cleopatra. Ben Hur had brought MGM $80 million on a 15 million investment and Elizabeth´s films were all at least moderate successes. Both “Cat on a hot tin roof” and “Suddenly, last summer” were very well received and their profit was tremendous. Producer Walter Wagner also wanted to make the film with Elizabeth Taylor because he had imagined Taylor as Cleopatra ever since “A Place in the sun”. She became “my Cleopatra”, “the quintessence of youthful femininity, of womanliness and strength, so beautiful and wise she also ruled the world” (Maddox, 127)

 Worth mentioning is that Bara´s film was silent and therefore, the script had no written dialogue. Skouras only remark about the problem was: “theese just needs a leettle re-writing”.

 Many stars were considered for the lead role and Joan Collins was the one who almost got it and even did a screen test. Marilyn Monroe wanted to play Cleopatra and posed as Theda Bara in costume as Cleopatra. Her tardiness and increasing emotional instability were causing enough trouble at Fox and she was never considered for the part. Other beauties contemplated for the role were Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Susan Hayward, Dorothy Dandrigde and Jennifer Jones. Skouras and Wagner, however, wanted Elizabeth Taylor even though they knew “she was going to be trouble” They couldn’t have imagined how much trouble she would be.

 Legend has it that Miss Taylor was in the bathtub when the phone rang. Eddie Fisher answered and told her that it was Fox and that they wanted her to do Cleopatra. Sure! – She said – Tell them I will do it for a million dollars! – was her answer (obviously joking). Fox said yes. Elizabeth screamed and went under water. However, she was reminded by producer Pandro Berman that she owed MGM one more picture before she could be free. Ouch!

 “Pandro Berman wanted her to for Butterfield 8, John O´Hara´s story about a New York call girl. “I made up my mind that she wasn’t going to make Cleopatra until hell froze over unless she made Butterfield 8 first. I forced her into it. I took a position and fortunately I was backed by the company.” (Maddox, 122-123)

 Elizabeth agreed reluctantly because legal issues might have prevented her from doing Cleopatra and swore to cause as much problems as possible during the shooting of “Butterfiled 8” which she considered pornographic. MGM was obviously trying to capitalize on Elizabeth Taylor´s image of a home-wrecker after the Fisher-Reynolds-Taylor scandal and the part of a prostitute suited her amazingly. Taylor complained publicly about the part which she considered terrible, but Berman never believed that the story of a nymphomaniac would upset her morals. According to him, it was the money that enraged her: “The trouble had nothing to do with the fact that Gloria was a call girl”, says Berman. “It was that she had to do it for MGM, for one hundred twenty-five thousand dollars, and she wanted the million for Cleopatra”. (Maddox, 123)

 Once BU8 was out of her way, Elizabeth signed the agreement to play “Cleopatra”, but she did not sign the contract… yet. The late Mike Todd had acquainted her with the business of making money and she was a good student. Cleopatra´s contract is probably the first time that Elizabeth showed what a shrewd business woman she was: she was fully aware of her status as a movie star and Fox´s position as well. She knew that she had to be tough to survive in Hollywood and she would never crumble under pressure and problems the way Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe did. Also, she was practically born in the studios and MGM always provided with what she wanted, because the Studio System believed that a happy star was a happy worker and that meant more money. Everything is about money after all.

 According to Alexander Walker in his mammoth book Elizabeth, the life of Elizabeth Taylor, she enjoyed the luxury of watching her lawyers add one golden clause after another to her demands:

  • She was to get $1 million; overage at $50.000 a week.
  • Per diem living expenses: $ 3000 weekly.
  • 10 percent of the film´s gross box-office take.
  • First-class round-trip transportation.
  • Economy class tickets for four employees.
  • First-class round-trip transportation for her lawyer-agent during the pre-production period and each time the film moved to a new location.
  • One 16mm print of the finished film.
  • Then husband Eddie Fisher was to receive $ 150.000 to “keep Elizabeth happy whenever she was needed”
  • Cleopatra was to be shot abroad: since her services were contracted to Fox by Elizabeth´s Corporation MCL Films SA (acronym standing for her children Michael, Christopher and Liza) registered in Zurich, taxes were the strongest reason to film abroad.
  • Cleopatra was to be filmed in the TODD-AO process, a widescreen film format developed by Mike Todd in partnership with the American Optical Company. Elizabeth Taylor owned the rights of the system.
  • She had director approval.

 In the past, other big stars had grabbed the Studios by the balls to get more money or other benefits:

 Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle each got $ 1 million per year (which was an enormous amount for those days) Greta Garbo was earning around $ 250.000 – 300.000 per picture in the 30s. Marlene Dietrich would top that with a salary of $450.000, becoming the highest paid actress up to that time. Charles Boyer also got $450.00 for his participation in Garbo´s “Conquest” in 1937; and there were other millionaires but none of them negotiated so much money and so many privileges as Elizabeth Taylor did for a single picture. Elizabeth sharpened her teeth and devoured the Studio System´s hand.

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 Monster LIZ was unstoppable and in the late 1959 – looking every inch like Gloria Wandrous- she signed the record-breaking contract to do “Cleopatra” for $ 1 million, becoming the highest paid actress of all times. It is said that Marilyn Monroe remained silent and thoughtful for a while after learning that Taylor would get such an exaggerated amount when she was “only” getting $100.000 for “Something´s got to give” which she, eventually, would not finish.

Theda Bara as Cleopatra

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Cleopatra, part 1

26 May

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Ever since the beginning of the 20th century the story of Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile has appealed to cinematographers and audiences alike. Her story of love, passion, ambition and drama had more than enough substance to successfully launch any film, and it became a proper vehicle for many stars more than a few times in cinema history. Even though today is generally known that Cleopatra was not really beautiful, she has been famous to us, the non-history buffs as a woman so beautiful that even the mighty Caesar fell for her. Even more so if we talk about the past: Cleopatra was a woman of passions always associated with sex; and why present a movie that is historically accurate but that does not agree with what the audience knows or believes? After all, they are the great majority that will drop their pennies for the movie, not the history-buffs. I am also sure that the movie producers were more interested in producing a good piece of entertainment rather than a documentary, having said that, it is worth mentioning that of all the Cleopatras filmed up to that time Taylor´s was the most accurate.

Many different facts came together at the exact point to make Taylor´s Cleopatra one of Hollywood most infamous and costliest films. It was to be the twilight of the old glorious Hollywood which was trying – desperately – not to die as it could not adapt itself to the social changes that were going on and that would boom in the 60s. The Star System would not survive Television and the change in public´s taste. Once the old Studio System broke down, Hollywood died.

Sadly, too much publicity has been given to the Taylor-Burton affair and that has overshadowed the film´s artistic achievements and its importance in shaping show-business ever since. Perhaps, Cleopatra has been analyzed too much from the wrong perspective. Perhaps, we should give it a chance.

Elizabeth Taylor was the greatest Studio System creation, and was precisely her the one who destroyed Hollywood; Elizabeth not only bit the hand that fed her, she ate it!

Taylor incarnated what today would be considered to be a cliché of what being a superstar is: beauty, wealth, love, sex, excesses, jewels, scandals, successes, failures, exposure, etc. Elizabeth possessed all of that, and in plenty. She defied the studio moguls and hated them, especially Louis B. Mayer and became a freelancer with such success that many other stars would follow her steps. But her rejection of the Studio System and what it meant, brought some troubles, like the lack of protection. In the “good old days” if a tragedy occurred, it was the studio Boss who would be there before the police, to clean up, re-arrange of bribe the police in order to cover up what could potentially damage their stars, who were bringing so much money in that it was worth keeping them safe and happy. They were the studio´s investments.

 Elizabeth´s single movie contract did not provide the protection she enjoyed some years before, and she would offer plenty of material to be photographed or written about. Stars´ lack of protection was very welcomed by freelance photographers, a new kind of aggressive photographer that would sell their material to the best buyer. The prices varied according to the current status of the star or the subject of the photo. They were called “Paparazzi” a word coined by director Fellini on his film “La dolce Vita”. They would expose celebrities to the hungry public (The feeding already started with the gossip magazines that appeared in the 50s) and showing just how real they actually were. This was a terrible blow to many glamorous stars that panicked at the mere idea of seeing unflattering pictures of themselves inundating the papers. (A good example would be Joan Crawford, whom after seeing some “terrible” shots of herself decided never to appear publicly again, because she “no longer looked like Joan Crawford”)

Cleopatra would offer as much entertainment on the screen as well as off and it would be the last attempt to show the magic and power of the Old Hollywood. To watch this movie is to witness a period in history that is no longer existent and which stumbled violently and died with a bittersweet swansong.

Elizabeth Taylor devoured the system that created her and The Silver Age of Hollywood would begin.