Friday, April 19, 2019

Film-Worthy Fashion at FIDM

Costumes from the Oscar-winning "Black Panther"

They say clothes don’t make the man (or woman). But when it comes to movies, clothes DO make the character. Recently I was pleased to visit the galleries of FIDM, Downtown L.A.’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, to enjoy the 27th annual exhibit honoring the art of motion picture costume design. With the cooperation of some of Hollywood’s finest, including all five of this year’s Oscar nominees, the exhibit (which I saw in its closing weekend) turned out to be an impressive display of the costume designer’s craft.

The entryway to the exhibition was graced by a spectacular violet gown featured in the 2018 Oscar-winning film, Phantom Thread. Of course that strange, captivating film had a fashion designer as its central character, and so it made for a good place to start. Then the first exhibition hall (and probably its most spectacular) featured startlingly imaginative costumes from various fantasy films, like Aquaman and Avengers: Infinity Wars. Tights and capes for superheroes abounded. But the real stars of the hall were the wondrously crafted designs by Ruth Carter that combine sleek power images with authentic African materials and motifs. No wonder Carter won this year’s Oscar for costume design, the first-ever African-American to triumph in this category.

In a room dedicated to movies set in the present, a wall plaque explained the challenge of designing clothes that are stylishly up-to-date but not so tied to the fads of any one year that they’ll look outmoded when the film is released. Examples on display came from such modish movies as Oceans Eight and Crazy Rich Asians. A video showed urbane director Paul Feig instructing actress Blake Lively (who plays a sinister rich bitch) how to strut impressively with a walking stick that features in the movie’s plot. 

The show’s next room was devoted to costumes that reflect Americana: everything from the simple prairie dress and bonnet worn by Zoe Kazan in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to the authentic period spacesuit in which Ryan Gosling blasted off to the moon in First Man. Then of course there were the gowns of British queens and their courtiers in films like The Favourite (another Oscar nominee) and Mary Queen of Scots. A queen of a very different sort showed up in the flamboyant outfits designed for Rami Malek, playing Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. (I’m quite partial to the crown, cape, leather pants, and tennis shoes ensemble designed by Julian Day for this film.)

A final section highlighted the work of three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell, In addition to The Favourite (for whose three leading actresses she created eccentric black-and-white gowns and man-tailored coat-and-britches ensembles), this British designer was responsible for the vibrant clothing worn in Mary Poppins Returns. I was especially taken with the candy-colored stripes she gave Lin-Manuel Miranda in a scene wherein he and star Emily Blunt would be photographed against an animated fantasy backdrop. Powell has been honored with Oscar statuettes for her work on Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, and The Young Victoria. She also has eleven other nominations. In a video about her work habits and achievements, Miranda quips that she herself is a kind of Mary Poppins, able to make humble materials into magic. 

While showing its love for Hollywood, FIDM is also dedicated to teaching its students about the history of fashion design. That explains its current project, which is on display in an adjacent gallery. There in fragmented form we see an elegant empire gown possibly worn by France’s Empress Josephine. The hope is to purchase it for the FIDM collection.

"Bohemian Rhapsody"

"Phantom Thread"

"Mary Poppins Returns"

"Black Panther"

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Corman, Bergman, and Bibi

Bibi Andersson (left) in Persona, with Liv Ullmann

As I write this, Notre Dame de Paris is burning, and I don’t quite know how to handle the loss of such an iconic place, one I first saw (and climbed) during my honeymoon. So instead I’ll focus on another, more human icon we’ve recently lost: the Swedish actress Bibi Andersson. The warm, spirited blonde was best known for her work in the films of her countryman (and sometime lover), Ingmar Bergman. She’s featured in such early Bergman classics as Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal,  along with a rare Bergman foray into English-language filmmaking, The Touch. (In that 1971 film, which I tried hard to like, Andersson’s housewife  character abandons her marriage vows for a troubled affair with a Jewish man, played by Elliott Gould, who’s haunted by the aftermath of the Holocaust. It was a box office and artistic flop.) 

It’s generally agreed that Bibi Andersson’s finest performance came in an enigmatic Bergman masterpiece, Persona, where she acted opposite another of Bergman’s powerful women, Liv Ullmann. In Persona, Andersson plays a down-to-earth nurse caring for a famous actress who has mysteriously stopped speaking. As events unfold, Andersson’s Alma reveals the secrets of her own past life, and the identities of the two women seem to  merge. In light of this story, it’s eerie to read of Andersson’s own later years. In 2009, at age 73, she suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak. She was confined to a nursing home for 10 years, until her death on April 14.

Though most of Andersson’s best films were made in Sweden, she occasionally took roles in Hollywood. One of the most unlikely was the part of the sympathetic therapist in Roger Corman’s 1977 screen adaptation of Joanne Greenberg’s semi-autobiographical tale of a young girl’s descent into schizophrenia, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. The leading role was played by Kathleen Quinlan, and Gavin Lambert earned an Oscar nom for his screenplay.

What was Roger Corman doing in such distinguished company?. Going art-house! The film was made a few years after he discovered that prestige and box-office returns could be generated by distributing the art films of European masters. I was in Roger’s employ when he made a deal with Ingmar Bergman to distribute the elegant and poignant Cries and Whispers across Middle America. We on the New World staff were thrilled to work on an unusually classy ad campaign. Our excitement doubled when Cries and Whispers was honored with five Oscar nominations, including Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Because Bergman chose not to travel from Sweden, Roger dressed in a tux and went to the Academy Award shindig to represent him. Alas for those of us who longed to see our boss on TV, the film nabbed only one statuette, for Best Cinematography. And Bergman stalwart Sven Nykvist was on hand to collect that Oscar in person.

Buoyed by his success in distributing Bergman in North America, Roger made a deal for Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, and later had the privilege of handling masterworks by Fran├žois Truffaut, Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa and other big names in world cinema.  In 1978, he once again teamed with Ingmar Bergman (as well as Ingrid Bergman) on behalf of Autumn Sonata. It’s hard for me to picture Roger and the reclusive Swedish auteur as buddies, but Roger still prominently displays on his office wall a letter from Bergman, thanking him for introducing his work to wider American audiences than the usual art-house crowd. Bergman films in drive-ins? Only a Roger Corman would think of that.

Friday, April 12, 2019

TNT Jackson: For Whom Jeanne Bell Tolled

Long ago I promised tireless B-movie fan Errol Thomas that I would write about my memories of Jeanne (also known as Jeannie and Jeanie) Bell. I worked with her on the blaxploitation classic TNT Jackson, and have never forgotten the experience. TNT Jackson, of course, has a sterling exploitation film pedigree. Shot in Manila by the always audacious Cirio Santiago, it was released in 1974 through New World Pictures. Since the film got its start in the fertile brain of Roger Corman and since Roger has just celebrated birthday #93, this post can be considered a tribute to him and to the outrageous environment in which I got my very special Hollywood education.

TNT Jackson sprang out of Roger’s canny realization (in the wake of Enter the Dragon and David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV series) that a martial arts flick with a gimmick could make for a sure hit at the drive-ins. He was well aware of the box office being generated by such physically tough African-American actresses as Pam Grier (in Coffy) and Tamara Dobson (in Cleopatra Jones). Roger’s brainstorm was to propose a film featuring a sexy black chick adept at martial arts. Manila, home of Roger’s crony Cirio, would nicely stand in for Hong Kong, enhancing a story about a woman outfoxing rival “tong” gangs. There were several attempts at a suitable script, one banged out by a Corman stalwart, the late Dick Miller. (When Dick turned in a draft that Roger disliked, the two got into a fight that severed their friendship for years to come. Find details about that colorful episode in my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers). Once the screenplay was finally done, it was time to find our leading lady.

Back then, while working at New World Pictures,  I moonlighted as a theatre critic. At a local playhouse, watching a drama about drug addiction, I was impressed by the performance of a young black actress. We invited her to audition for the title role of Diana (TNT) Jackson, and she was quickly cast. Then, just before she was due to fly to the Philippines, she announced that she was pregnant. Not a good sign: the part would require intense fight scenes and (since this was a Corman movie) a fair amount of nudity. On short notice, we started looking around, and came up with someone who was not much of a thespian but could boast an appearance as one of Playboy’s first African-American centerfolds. For a Roger Corman actress, this was a terrific credential. And though she hardly knew much about martial arts, Jeanne proved to be amiable and hard-working (and looked mightily impressive in a topless kung fu battle).

What I remember best about Jeanne Bell was the day she came into my office to work on some publicity material. I jotted down some notes about her background, and then she asked me how she should spell her name. Say what? It seems her real name was Annie Lee Morgan. She’d settled on a stage moniker, but wasn’t sure about the spelling. She wanted to be called Jeanie, but liked the Jeanne spelling. So she asked if that was OK. I reassured her she could spell her name any way she pleased.

So, though I liked Jeanne, I didn’t give her credit for much in the way of smarts. She was undeniably cute, however. Later that same year, she was cast in The Klansman, and Time magazine revealed to the world that she was canoodling with star Richard Burton. Who probably gave her some tips on spelling. 

Ms. Bell and Mrs. Burton, Oregon, 1974
This one’s for Errol Thomas, who willed it into being