Elsa Martinelli 01/30/1935-07/08/2017

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One of my favourite women has died. Elsa Martinelli was one of cinema’s real cool girls. Born Elisa Tia in Tuscany, she became a model at a very young age and was spotted by French director Claude Autant-Lara after she had a small role in an Italian anthology film and within a couple of years she did that rite of passage for all italian beauties – a rice film (Mangano and Loren did one too.) Kirk Douglas – who had a taste for fresh flesh – took her to Hollywood for The Indian Fighter but it wasn’t until she played Georgia in Roger Vadim’s perversely wonderful Blood and Roses (1960) (a 20th century update of le Fanu’s Carmilla) that she gained real star status. She had already done amazing work in Mauro Bolognini’s La notte brava (written by Pasolini) so she was by now an auteur favourite.   She played opposite Anthony Perkins in Orson Welles’ underrated interpretation of The Trial (1962) which he shot in Paris and then sent up her own image as Gloria Gritti in The VIPs (1963) – with Welles as the movie mogul to her petulant movie star. Then of course she was the fabulous Dallas in Hatari! (1963) a film that really exhibited her particular brand of Euro cool and of course that haircut framing such a defiantly modern look and determinedly independent character. Never mind that she wound up with John Wayne – just think of all those baby elephants!  That’s one of my desert island movies for sure. That look was what made me pay attention to her as a kid when I spotted her in the extremely bizarre and super fashionable Sixties crime movie Maroc 7 (1967) which was on TV now and then.  She was already out of her troubled marriage into the Roman aristocracy that had produced a daughter and she eventually married the brilliant photographer Willy Rizzo. She also became one of those weird Sixties hybrids – the actor-singer (there were a few of them, like Bardot and Birkin) and if you want to hear some truly mournful and striking chansons you can check her out on YouTube which has some of her TV recordings. She made a really great impression in The Belle Starr Story (1968), a rare western directed by a woman, Lina Wertmuller (who had to make it under a male pseudonym) and continued to appear opposite top Hollywood stars like Dustin Hoffman and even Raquel Welch! In between supporting roles and cameos in Hollywood travelogue comedy movies like If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium and her final screen appearance Once Upon a Crime where she has a small cameo, she was a definite part of the fabled jet set and there are many snaps of her partying with people like Ari Onassis. Latterly she was in a number of TV series, both German and Italian, with her last role in Orgoglio, a period romance which ran for a few years in Italy with Martinelli participating in 2005. Rizzo predeceased her four years ago and she was living in Rome at the time of her death. What a wonderful woman she was.

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La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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My review of Shawn Levy’s book Dolce Vita Confidential which excavates in scrupulous detail the circumstances leading up to the film’s production is here:  http://offscreen.com/view/dolce-vita-swinging-rome.

Rear Window (1954)

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Grace Kelly had one hour to choose between returning to work with Alfred Hitchcock or taking the part of the girl in On the Waterfront. She chose this. And a good thing too, because it was written with her in mind. At the director’s suggestion, radio writer John Michael Hayes had got to know her on and off the set of Dial M for Murder and designed the role adapted from a story by Cornell Woolrich around Kelly’s authentic persona and that of his wife, a former model. It was by working with Hitchcock that Kelly learned to work with her whole body. He listened to her and she loved his jokes – they shared a filthy sense of humour. She plays Lisa Carol Fremont, a high society NYC mover and shaker who’s in love with photojournalist James Stewart, stuck looking out his window at his neighbours’ apartments while laid up with a broken leg. She’s desperately in love with him but he wants to get rid of her – then she becomes a gorgeous Nancy Drew when he suspects one of his neighbours has murdered his wife. Only then does he realise what he’s got. She’s the action girl of his dreams. When you go to Paramount Studios you can see the four-wall facility that Hitchcock used to create the biggest set built there but sadly nothing remains of this paean to onanism, voyeurism, narcissism and whatever other perversion you’re having yourself. Oh, and scopophilia. In theory, this is all about Stewart but really it’s all about Kelly – and the biggest joke here of course is that the most beautiful woman in the world wants him and he doesn’t get it. Not really. Not until she becomes a part of the unfolding events he watches through his viewfinder. Kelly’s entrance is probably the greatest afforded any movie star. Her costumes alone tell a great story. MGM never knew what to do with her so loaning her out wasn’t a problem.  The theatre owners knew who the real star was – and put her name up on their marquees above anyone else’s. Audiences adored her. She was the biggest thing in 1954. And this witty, clever study of a man afraid of marriage is for most people Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. For more on Kelly’s collaborations with Hitchcock, which are the peak of both their careers, and the high point of midcentury cinema, you can see my essay Hitchcock/Kelly at Canadian journal Offscreen:  https://www.offscreen.com/hitchcock-kelly.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

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The blackest of comedies, this, a satire about looks and cosmetic surgery and Hollywood that 25 years later looks a lot like contemporary society’s obsession with plastic even if it doesn’t actually predict the rise of the D-listers famous for selling sex tapes to fund their face changing which everyone pretends not to notice (seriously:  when did plastic surgery get so bad? It used to work! Nobody noticed Gary Cooper’s facelift! Or Alain Delon’s!). Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are friends who have wildly different career trajectories (prescient…) when Meryl makes off with Bruce Willis, a talented plastic surgeon who keeps the actress wealthy while her roles diminish. Goldie meanwhile spends years sitting in front of the TV getting fat obsessing over what might have been. Seven years later … Goldie is shrunk and madeover and arrives to take what’s rightfully hers – Bruce, now an alcoholic mess – while Meryl is having it away with anyone twenty years younger. Meryl avails of a potion for eternal life sold from a Gothic castle in the Hollywood Hills by Isabella Rossellini, a sex goddess witch with a Louise Brooks ‘do who looks 25 but is actually 71. Thus Bruce and Goldie’s plot to kill her off fails and she then kills Goldie – who also gets to live forever while Bruce wonders what on earth he can do to escape them when they go to a party at Isabella’s which happens to be Night of the Living Hollywood Dead… Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script is pretty smart but goes for easy targets in horror instead of the social mores it’s ostensibly attacking.  There are nice bits – Goldie’s insight with her therapist;  Sydney Pollack as the doctor finding Meryl has no heartbeat after her head’s twisted back to front and she’s sitting up talking to him in his Beverly Hills surgery; the party at Isabella’s with an orchestra led by Ian Ogilvie and we recognise some very famous dead faces dancing – but in the main it’s a totally OTT effects fantasia, a singular failing of director Robert Zemeckis whose work I preferred in the days of Used Cars and Back to the Future.  One thing is sure in the 37-years-later last segment – these ladies don’t age quite the way they want to! For romance novel fans, yes, that’s Fabio playing Isabella’s bodyguard. Golly!

The First Monday in May (2016)

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Andrew Rossi’s documentary about the Met Gala launch of curator Andrew Bolton’s 2015 China:  Through the Looking Glass exhibition is surprisingly engaging. Tracing the connections between fashion and art, East and West, in sometimes discursive, occasionally politically confrontational situations, the strands that come together at the eleventh hour make for fascinating viewing: the influences include pre-1949 China (Bolton’s idea for a Mao hall is politely put down), Anna May Wong, traditional chinoiserie and the Dragon Lady trope that was used in Hollywood cinema as a version of the femme fatale. Cliches for the eventually dazzling display abound before being thrown out and reconfigured by Wong Kar-Wai, whose In the Mood for Love is a key concept in its foregrounding of the cheongsam, and Baz Luhrmann, who urges a rethink of the dragon heads at the entry to the building in an amusing encounter. The two-year project is painstakingly put together and two weeks before it’s due to open it’s eight days behind and the day before they’re still struggling to get the lights working. Andre Leon Talley describes the Gala as the Superbowl of social fashion and greets Rihanna as queen of the night in her astonishing gown. Sadly for the bemused crowd the Barbadian harpie then performs some dreadful rap dirge, an appalling post-prandial conclusion to what looked like a great melding of different cultural worlds and one that exposes Anna ‘Nuclear’ Wintour as less dragon lady than lollipop lady, practically sniggering with gratitude about her caricature in The Devil Wears Prada which of course made her a household name and not just in those that take Vogue every month. The expo proved hugely successful and it’s interesting to see the array of insightful interviewees includes a chastened John Galliano in a documentary that is highly sensitive about the fate of gifted designers and their patrons, starting with a description of the importance of the late great Alexander McQueen and TV coverage of his sad death. A fine, respectful piece of work.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

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Comedian turned screenwriter (I Love You Alice B. Toklas) Paul Mazursky spent a weekend at the Esalen Institute with his wife and wound up writing a five-page treatment with Larry Tucker (they wrote the pilot for The Monkees) about a filmmaker and his wife whose lives are changed by just such an experience and what happens between them and their friends when they put what they’ve learned there into practice. This elegant satire of New Age mores, the counterculture and late Sixties open-mindedness hasn’t lost its power, its humour or indeed its touching qualities. The casting is everything:  Natalie Wood and Robert Culp as the gullible couple; and Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon as their friends who suffer their own psychological crises as a result of too much information, are all fantastic;  it’s impossible to pick between them since each conveys the truth of the situation in compelling fashion.  Each performs a perfect mix of comedy and drama, specific, controlled and authentic. There are some truly stomach-churning scenes of oversharing. What a directing debut for Mazursky! And it all ends in highly ironic fashion to the sounds of Jackie DeShannon warbling What The World Needs Now is Love!

Shampoo (1975)

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The unthinkable death of Carrie Fisher prompted me to put on one of my favourite Seventies film and the one which marked her striking debut.  She’s the spoiled precocious teenage daughter of Felicia (Lee Grant) and Lester (Jack Warden). The former is screwing her Beverly Hills hairdresser, George Roundy (Warren Beatty) and it is one of their couplings that opens the film in radical fashion – in the dark. Lester meanwhile is having his own adulterous affair with Jackie (Julie Christie) whose former BF is George, who is currently co-habiting with Jill  (Goldie Hawn). All the women think they are unique in George’s affections but one of the film’s good visual jokes is that he gives them all precisely the same hairstyle (and that’s not all he gives them…) They all meet up at a party  on Election Night 1968 and their complex roundelay of relationships and infidelities unravels piece by piece. Some of this arose from screenwriter Robert Towne’s experiences with a dancer whose former boyfriend was a Beverly Hills hairdresser, who, far from being gay, was like a rooster in a henhouse. Apparently there were quite a few of them around Hollywood at the time. The other influence was Restoration comedy.  Towne regretted giving co-writing credit to his star, Warren Beatty, but it does have a political component not evident in his other work. Directed with great finesse by Hal Ashby and boasting a host of marvellous performances in a naughty, caustic tragicomedy that just improves on every viewing, this is a key film of the period. You can read more about it in my book about Towne, https://www.amazon.com/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1482705700&sr=8-3&keywords=elaine+lennon. Rest In Peace, Princess Carrie.

Zoolander 2 (2016)

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Adam, Eve and … Steve. It’s a long time since we first met Derek and tried Blue Steel and social media appears to have radically filtered our narcissistic reality in the interim but this isn’t exactly Chanel No. 5 no matter how you cut the advertising. Justin Bieber never did anything to me but a lot of people enjoyed watching him getting machine gunned to death in the first few minutes. The setting in Rome is delectable. The cast are game. It’s a supremely silly satire about fashion vanity and everyone you have ever heard of is in it. YOU are probably in it. The story is about Fashion Interpol – run by Penelope Cruz – who get Derek and Hansel to help uncover the villain behind the assassination of pop stars. Derek finds his son in an orphanage and is horrified by his obesity. Hansel has fathered a bunch of children in Malibu (presumably an in-joke). Sting meets the irrelevant pair at St Peter’s and tells them an alternative tale of models’ origins which has a vague similarity to Christianity. Mugatu is back attempting world domination. Funny, daft, utterly inane. What did you expect?! Written by John Hamburg, Nicholas Stoller, Justin Theroux and Ben Stiller, who also directed.

Piccadilly (1929)

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Has there ever been a better-looking London film? Not in black and white. From the titles on the sides of buses and on advertising hoarding and in neon lighting, to the exotic costumes enhancing the performances by kitchen maid turned star Shosho (Anna May Wong) in the titular nightclub, this tale of infidelity, deception, jealousy, murder, sex, race and class remains a thrilling parade. Wong is stunning. Directed by German great EA Dupont from a screenplay by Arnold Bennett, I’ve written about it here:  www.offscreen.com/view/peccadillo-piccadilly.

Tea With Mussolini (1999)

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Writer/director Franco Zeffirelli is one of the storied Italian auteurs, whose personal life and origins serve as the inspiration for this screenplay by John Mortimer, an Italophile of long standing. It’s 1935. Little Luca (Charlie Lucas) is the motherless boy who is taken care of by a group of expat English women in Florence, known as the Scorpioni, led by Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright) who is the secretary to the boy’s businessman father. He has no interest in the illegitimate fruit of his liaison with the late dressmaker and his wife makes the boy’s wife hell when she sees him. We are introduced to Arabella (Judi Dench) a keen artist but more effective at restoration who spends most of her days at the Uffizi;  Lady Hester, the obstinate widow of the British Consul (Maggie Smith); and wealthy American and serial bride Elsa Morgenthal (Cher) who returns to Italy after years away, keen to pay for Luca’s education and puts together a trust fund for his future:  she owes his mama a great deal. She’s a flamboyant art collector, despised by Hester. The Fascists destroy the daily afternoon tea that these ladies of a certain age enjoy but Lady Hester is convinced that Mussolini’s personal promises to her ensure their safety. Luca is sent to school in Austria by his father who no longer wishes him to be an English gentleman, but a German businessman. When he returns (in the form of Baird Wallace) in 1940 the ladies are rounded up as enemy aliens. Only Elsa and Lesbian archaeologist Georgie (Lily Tomlin) are spared due to America not entering the war yet. Elsa secretly helps Jews in the district and gets the ladies out of their prison-like conditions in San Gimignano and pays for their hotel accommodation – where she winds up with Georgie after Pearl Harbour and Americans are enemies now too. She hooks up with a lawyer who has her sign over everything to him to save her life – she thinks. Lady Hester’s grandson (Paul Chequer) cross-dresses as female to be spared getting shot by the fascists and lives with them until he can’t take it any more and joins the partisan gang of which Luca is now a part… There is a gracious ensemble of actresses here and the trick of the screenplay is to shift focus to each in turn while Luca is mostly an observer, growing up with difficulty as he sees Elsa with her lover and reacts with jealousy, leading to her being endangered. Baird Wallace doesn’t convincingly play the role but since his scenes are underwritten he probably does as well as he can. However, all ends well, with some amusing interaction with Nazis (believe it or not) when Arabella protects her beloved Uffizi from their bombs. When Lady Hester has to eat crow with Elsa, she does it in the most stylish way possible – saving her life. This may be Zeffirelli’s recollection, but it’s mostly fond vignettes with no real sense of the murderousness of the fascisti and their acolytes. It’s nice to see Dench returning to the scene of A Room With a View, and with husband Michael Williams in tow. Perfect entertainment for a day dripping with fog, frost curling at the windows.