Documentary on dancer reveals rare strength of character

Tanaquil Le Clercq served as a muse to dance giants George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

Tanaquil Le Clercq served as a muse to dance giants George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

 

At 17, Tanaquil Le Clercq was dancing principal parts in the New York City Ballet.

At 17, Tanaquil Le Clercq was dancing principal parts in the New York City Ballet. Kino Lorber

Tanaquil “Tanny” Le Clercq isn’t a well-known name. But it should be.

Born in Paris on Oct. 2, 1929, to a French father and American mother, her family moved to New York when she was 3. At 17, the stunningly elegant ballerina was dancing principal parts in the New York City Ballet. She was a muse to famed choreographers Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, whom she married in 1952. Beauty, grace, love and success were hers.

But four years later her life fell apart – on tour in Copenhagen, Tanny contracted polio and most of her body was paralyzed. She never walked or danced again. With her husband’s help, however, she made a partial recuperation and regained the use of her arms. Refusing to give in to self-pity, Tanny turned her attention to teaching, coaching, writing and cooking. She died on Dec. 31, 2000.

Her unusual name as well as her indomitable, inspiring spirit will likely get more of the recognition it deserves thanks to director Nancy Buirski’s new documentary “Afternoon of a Faun,” which is showing Wednesday, April 9, at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, co-presented with Dance Camera West. Dance critic Debra Levine will talk with the director after the screening.

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Film noir gem ‘Murder by Contract’ highlighted in new book

This summer, my friend Rob Elder released a new book (his sixth): The Best Film You’ve Never Seen: 35 Directors Champion the Forgotten or Critically Savaged Movies They Love.

As Roger Ebert put it: “How necessary this book is! And how well judged and written! Some of the best films ever made, as Robert K. Elder proves, are lamentably all but unknown.”

It’s a great read and an invaluable reference tome for any serious film lover. To give you an idea of the treasures you will discover, Rob has kindly agreed to let me run an excerpt of the chapter in which he discusses “Murder by Contract” (a taut and chilling film noir) with director Antonio Campos.

Murder by Contract
1958, Directed by Irving Lerner. Starring Vince Edwards, Phillip Pine and Herschel Bernardi.

Claude (Vince Edwards) is an unusual hit man. He wasn’t born to the life, but instead he made himself a resourceful, calculating contract killer with an existentialist worldview. “He is so committed to his point of view and his philosophy that he’s developed—you respect that,” says Antonio Campos, who champions Murder by Contract. Campos praises the stylized off-camera hits, the economy of shots, and Edwards’s lead performance in this B-level noir film, shot in eight days.

That’s not to say he thinks it’s a perfect film. “What’s also charming about the film is that it is kind of a diamond in the rough,” Campos says. “Whatever rough edges Murder by Contract has are ultimately completely overshadowed by the brilliant dialogue and the commitment to a tone that was so ballsy.”

Antonio Campos, selected filmography:
Afterschool (2008), Simon Killer (2012)

Robert K. Elder: How would you describe Murder by Contract to someone who’s never seen it?
Antonio Campos: It’s a faithful noir film about a contract killer, from a time when not many films were made like that.

What made it special?
Campos: I remember vividly, I’d seen it at the Film Forum, and I remember feeling like I hadn’t seen anything like that in the program, and also I’d never seen anything like that outside of even contemporary film. Obviously there are contract-killer films now, but there was something about it, and the lightness, the light touch that it had, that really struck me as something very unique.

Let’s talk about the star, Vince Edwards, who was best known as the lead in TV’s hospital drama Ben Casey. Can you talk about him as a leading man?
Campos: The first time I ever saw Vince Edwards was in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). And I think he’s one of these B actors from that period. I was thinking about Vince Edwards and I was thinking about Timothy Carey in The Killing—they’re very specific kind of actors but could never be the classic leading man. Vince Edwards could be the leading man in that film, but he couldn’t be—he would never be—the movie star that he probably wanted to be. And I find those kinds of actors fascinating.

What does Edwards do in this role that makes him so magnetic, that pulls us through the film?
Campos: It’s his charisma as an actor. As a character, it’s the fact that he believes in something. As fickle as it may be, he has this amazing control. He is so committed to his point of view and his philosophy that he’s developed—you respect that.

If the film was made today, you’d have a little bit more violence to make the character a little more complex. You’re kind of rooting for him from the beginning.

Claude (Vince Edwards) is misanthropic but he has a heart and certain principles.

This is Edwards’s first film with Irving Lerner, a former documentarian, and shot in eight days.
Campos: What I find really interesting is that it isn’t a perfect film. It’s not a film that you watch and you think, “This guy is some brilliant unknown director!” What’s interesting is, for example, the first scene where Claude meets the character of Mr. Moon, that long shot that plays out. That felt like a very strong choice. It felt like Irving Lerner was in complete control of the way this film was made.

In Afterschool, many of your characters are also kept out of frame, especially in that first twenty minutes. Am I right to draw that parallel to Murder by Contract?
Campos: It wasn’t necessarily a direct influence. There was a certain kinship, I felt, with the way that he was approaching his composition.

My feeling about offscreen action and that fragmentation of characters is that you heighten the mystery and the tension because you’re holding back someone who feels very important to the story. Those moments in which the characters are offscreen or, for lack of a better word, decapitated by the frame, you almost make the universe of the film larger. In terms of Afterschool, you always felt like there was a bigger world outside of the frame that you wanted to see and also a bigger world outside of the frame that you couldn’t see. That, to me, is one of the things that can make a smaller film or a lower-budget film feel bigger.

Claude’s solitary nature is similar to Travis Bickle’s loner life in “Taxi Driver” by Martin Scorsese.

And one of the other parallels is the solitary nature of Vince’s character, especially inside his room—something it shares with the protagonist in Afterschool. Was that sequence influential?
Campos: Murder by Contract definitely could’ve played a sort of subconscious influence on me. I find that there are the filmmakers whose body of work I’ve become very familiar with, but then I’m aware of them influencing me. And then there are those one-off films that I see that subconsciously have made a greater effect on me that I don’t realize.

That particular sequence also influenced Martin Scorsese. Lerner’s austere training montage is reflected in Taxi Driver.
Campos: For Claude, it’s a job, and he’s had to train himself. He says many times that this is not the way he was born. He’s developed a certain coldness intentionally so that he can be a contract killer. Obviously, film noir was so much about antiheroes, and this is about someone who is a very cold-blooded killer and so calculated. The other thing that struck me is his point of view of the world that was quite misanthropic and quite cynical, but at the same time, he had a heart and he had certain principles that he was struggling with.

Why do you think we, as viewers, are drawn to the charismatic psychopath or sociopath?
Campos: We’re drawn to them when they’re done a certain way. Taxi Driver, for example, has Travis Bickle, and Bickle is the charismatic sociopath. At first, you sympathize with the fact that he is so disconnected and confused.

I don’t feel like they’re completely sociopaths. They have sociopathic tendencies or something, but deep down inside, there is a heart and humanity. [Read more...]

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Producer Walter Mirisch talks with author Foster Hirsch after ‘Fall Guy,’ a rare film noir, at TCM fest

After a TCM film fest screening of “Fall Guy,” a rare film noir from 1947 starring Leo Penn (Sean’s dad), producer Walter Mirisch (right) talked with author Foster Hirsch. Mirisch went on to produce “The Magnificent Seven,” “West Side Story,” “The Great Escape,” “The Pink Panther” and “In the Heat of the Night,” among many others. The screening and talk were Saturday, April 14, at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.

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Out of the Shadows: More from David J. Haskins

I recently interviewed David J. Haskins about his Black Dahlia play, “The Chanteuse and the Devil’s Muse,” recently at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles. The play was scheduled to run through Oct. 1 but closed on Sept. 17. There will be one more performance on Nov. 12, as part of Theatrefication. Haskins is a writer, director and musician, formerly a founding member of the band Bauhaus.

Here are more highlights from our talk, Parts 2 & 3. You can see Part 1 here. (Dr. George Hodel was a suspect at the time of the 1947 murder. His son Steve Hodel believes his father was guilty and outlines the evidence in his book “Black Dahlia Avenger” first published in 2003.)


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Out of the Shadows: An interview with David J. Haskins, creator of ‘The Chanteuse and the Devil’s Muse’

I recently interviewed David J. Haskins about his Black Dahlia play, “The Chanteuse and the Devil’s Muse,” which runs through Oct. 1 at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles. Haskins is a writer, director and musician, formerly a founding member of the band Bauhaus. He lives in Hollywood.

The production uses three interwoven devices: a dramatization; live music from Haskins, Ego Plum and Ysanne Spevack; and butoh dance by acclaimed performer Vangeline. Central to the story is real-life singer Madi Comfort, whose lover was a suspect in the Black Dahlia case.

Here is the first part of our discussion. I will continue to post video on FNB and YouTube.

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Dita Von Teese on costumes, haute couture, Carmen Miranda, ‘CSI’ and more

For nearly 20 years, Dita Von Teese has mesmerized audiences with her brand of burlesque – sexy and sophisticated, provocative and polished. And definitely laced with humor. I saw her perform at the Roxy the last time she was in Los Angeles and wanted to know more about her and how she puts the show together. Here is our chat via email.

Photo by Aaron Settipane/www.ayessemedia.com

FNB: Your show is terrific and your costumes are spectacular. In this current show, do you have a favorite number?
DVT: I was pretty excited to have the new Swarovski crystallized glass because it’s something I always dreamed of, and it makes doing my most-known show exciting for me again. But I also loved doing the powder compact, it’s a show I made over 15 years ago, so it was fun to do it again. The Opium Den is definitely my most extravagant overall, so it could be a favorite. …

It’s difficult to choose a favorite because I created each of these acts, and so there’s a lot of heart-felt effort time, and money put into each act, and so I perform then with great pleasure. It’s much different than an entertainer who steps onto the stage in a show of someone else’s design, choreography, etc. It’s a huge process to build these acts, and so by the time each one comes together, it’s nearly impossible to say I like one more than the other!

FNB: I’ve read that you do your own makeup. Do you design your costumes? If not, can you talk about where they come from?
DVT: I work very closely with the costumers, I have very definite ideas of what I want to wear and the function of the costume. I like to give some creative freedom to the costumer, but in the end I have to be very attentive to how it’s made and how it looks as each piece of clothing come off. …

Each time a piece drops to the floor, it has to be a new, beautiful look worthy of a photo. I have costumes designed by fellow burlesque performer Catherine D’Lish, and it’s great to work with her because she actually puts the costume on and can feel what’s right and really understands the functions of the costume. I have costumes designed by haute couturiers Elie Saab, Christian Dior and Mr. Pearl too, and they’re beautifully made, and each has a very different style.

Photo by Aaron Settipane

It’s a lot of fun to work with these designers because their tailoring and attention to detail is amazing. Elie Saab did three gowns for me, and one is a long sheer gown covered in silver embroidered stars and I remember asking for a piece of the fabric to make a g-string out of and they came out of the atelier in Paris with two things: a piece of fine tulle and a bag of tiny beads. I had no idea that each and every tiny bead on this incredible, sweeping gown had been hands sewn on. THAT is haute couture! I also work with Christian Louboutin for all my shoes for the shows, and we have fun in his atelier coming up with new extravagant ideas for show-shoes … he’s working on something now that is amazing!!

FNB: From what I’ve read, your Mom was a big fan of old movies and got you hooked as well. What are some of your favorite films from the 1940s?
DVT: I’m a big fan of WWII era Technicolor musicals with Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda. These are my absolute favorites!

FNB: Any film-noir favorites?
DVT: I like ’40s era film noir, but I admit I am not a film noir expert as much as a Technicolor expert! I would love to have your recommendations!

FNB: I liked your role in the “CSI” episode, “A Kiss Before Frying.” Did you enjoy it and do you have any more plans to act in film noir-inspired projects?
DVT: Well, I have to admit that I did “CSI” because Eric Szmanda (who plays Greg) is a very close friend of mine, and we always jokingly talked about it, but you know, being a burlesque dancer, mainstream American TV seemed very out of reach for me. I was happy to have the experience, and really happy to bring a bit of authentic burlesque to a wider audience, especially in the wake of the commercialization and sanitization of burlesque that we see a lot of lately. …

I insisted that I take my bra off for the burlesque part of the story, because I’m tired of seeing burlesque portrayed as just retro-style dancing and singing, because it’s NOT. Gypsy Rose Lee, the most celebrated burlesque star of all time from the ’30s and ’40s, was a stripper, and wasn’t offended by the term at all. [Read more...]

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8mm sizzles with noir-tinged rock: Friday at the Roxy

With a haunting voice, retro-glam sexiness, and material both subtle and raw, Juliette Beavan of 8mm melds a femme fatale’s sophistication with flinty rock energy. From the first searing notes, often punctuated by smoke and shadow, the songs draw you in like a Hitchcock thriller; lyrics linger in your head well beyond the show’s end. This part of “Crawl,” for instance, is hard to forget: “or maybe there’s another/ trick, another spell/ and I could change you/ and I’d draw you to me/ pull you to me, crawl to me./ draw you to me/ pull you to me/ call you to me/crawl to me.”
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Her bandmates include her husband Sean Beavan (guitar, vocals) and Jon Nicholson (drums). They describe their sound as “trip-hop influenced pop-rock.” First-rate musicians, the guys are the perfect complement to Juliette’s vocals and keyboard.
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Juliette Beavan of 8mm. Photo by Critter Newell

“That’s right, blame it on the girl,” she might tease them between songs, before adjusting her mic or straightening a cord. A New Orleans native, she’s fond of bringing beads, candy and banter to toss to the eager crowd, many of whom clutch cameras the way people used to flick lighters as preface to an encore.
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Together since 2004, 8mm has an impressive resume that includes four albums and several tours (the US, Canada, the UK and Chile). Sean Beavan, who hails from Cleveland, formerly worked with bands such as Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and God Lives Underwater. He and Juliette write the songs; their work has been featured in the 2005 film “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” as well as in a number of TV shows, including “One Tree Hill,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Moonlight,” “Dirt,” Road Rules,” and “The Real World: Sydney.”
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You can see 8mm for yourself Friday, June 3, at the Roxy Theatre, with the Kidney Thieves, Cage 9, The Shakers and DJ High Voltage. The show starts at 8 p.m. and 8mm goes on at 9 p.m.
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I caught up with Juliette recently to chat about the band’s penchant for noir.
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Film Noir Blonde: The band’s name is a film reference, your shows are richly atmospheric and your songs often deal with mystery, secrets, betrayal and hidden desire, much as a film noir would. Can you talk about how the aesthetic of film noir in general has been an influence for you?
Juliette Beavan: Yes, a reference to the film stock, because for us, 8mm film brings to mind smoky back rooms of 1930s Berlin, the first stag films, the early home movies … in other words, secrets, memories, longings (secret and professed) and decadence … all the things we try to bring to our music. They also happen to be things that are part and parcel to any good film noir. In addition, the look, the sleek styling, elegant and dangerous players, well, that sounds like a band to us!

8mm plays the Viper Room. Photo by Billy Howerdel

FNB: Any femmes fatales that stand out for you?
JB: Hahaha, are you gonna ask any questions with short answers? Where to start … Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Gene Tierney, Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Anne Baxter, Nora Zehetner in “Brick” does a wonderful job, not to mention (I know they’re not femmes fatales, but I would be remiss to leave the men out) Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives Bogey a run for his money in that film. And for the men, of course, there is the one and only Humphrey Bogart.

FNB: Of ’40s and ’50s singers or bands, who are your top favorites?
JB: Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Bing Crosby, to name a few.

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8mm's Jon Nicholson, Juliette Beavan and Sean Beavan. Photo by Herwig Maurer

FNB: Do you essentially get into character when you perform, especially Juliette as the frontwoman?
JB: In a sense, yes, and it varies from song to song, because each one is a different story, character, sort of mini movie for us. I’m a storyteller not a character (like a GaGa or Madonna), so the approach is a little different. It only takes a note or two for me “see it” in my head again, to step into “her” shoes … from there it’s just natural.

You kind of have to use your whole body to tell the story, and the story becomes my own for that time.

FNB: Raymond Chandler said a good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled. Do you think that’s true for writing songs and music?
JB: Certainly at times … what Sean plays makes me see stories, so I suppose you could say that is a bit of a distilling process to bring the story down into its key emotional components for a 3 minute song. However, there are other times when you get a “cosmic FedEx” (a term we’re stealing from Scott Russo of Unwritten Law). That’s where the song comes to you almost writing itself and you have to grab and get it down before it moves on. You know, the muse will find another host if you aren’t paying attention.

[Read more...]

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Rouge tins and compacts and powder, oh my!

Tonight is part two of my Q&A with writer, social historian and author of the Vintage Powder Room, Joan Renner.

Writer Joan Renner

FNB: Where do you find your pieces?
JR: When I first began to collect I could find face powder boxes at flea markets and estate sales, but the Internet has changed that considerably.  I still find items in those places occasionally, but mostly I rely on Internet sites such as eBay and Etsy (and the generosity of friends).
FNB: How were you able to research the original prices and how/where was the makeup typically sold, upon its release?
JR: I’ve used multiple sources to research pieces in my collection.  My favorites are vintage magazines and newspapers.  Via the Los Angeles Public Library I access the Proquest database to view early issues (1880-1980) of the Los Angeles Times online.  Ancestory.com also makes it possible to search vintage newspapers from around the country.
For a peek into the early days of the cosmetics/perfume industry I think that the publication AMERICAN PERFUMER AND ESSENTIAL OIL REVIEW can’t be beat.  I’m fortunate because the Central Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library has a good collection of them.
Then, as now, the pricier brands of makeup would be found at the cosmetics counter of the finer department stores.  Women on a tighter budget could find a wide array of makeup choices at their local drugstore or five and dime.
Many of the early cosmetics companies were regional and either went out of business years ago or they were absorbed by bigger companies.  A few of the largest brands are still in business; for example Coty is over 100 years old and continues to manufacture Airspun face powder in a box designed by Rene Lalique!  The box is festooned with little powder puffs and it is simply gorgeous.  You can purchase it at a drugstore or online for just a few dollars. Amazingly inexpensive for a piece of cosmetics and design history!

Coty Airspun face powder (hard to date this box because the design is virtually unchanged from original)

FNB: Are any still made today/ have you ever worn or used any of your collection?
JR: I’ve used some of the compacts that I’ve collected, but never any of the cosmetics – that would be way too risky.  Over the years cosmetics have contained some toxic, potentially lethal, ingredients.  Early cosmetics contained a wide variety of nasty ingredients such as lead or arsenic.
FNB: How has the merchandising and marketing of makeup and beauty products changed over the last 60 or so years?
JR: Cosmetics companies still advertise in fashion magazines and other magazines geared toward women, but now you have TV and radio advertising, both mediums were in their infancy 60 years ago.  Surprisingly, even in the early days of makeup, there were celebrity endorsements and the celebrity branding of cosmetics.
During the 1910s and 1920s Mary Garden, a Scottish born opera singer, partnered with Rigaud to offer a line of cosmetics and perfumes using her name and image.  Another woman who would leverage her fame into a line of cosmetics was Edna Wallace Hopper.  Hopper was an actress/singer who would never reveal her age.  She said that her birth records had been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake!  She was always described as eternally youthful looking, so that was the hook for her brand of cosmetics and skin care.
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Vintage cosmetics collector shares a few of her 500 finds

Velvetina face powder box c. 1910

FNB readers are in for a wonderful treat this week. Writer and vintage cosmetics collector Joan Renner has graciously agreed to share highlights from her collection of more than 500 items.
I’ll start today with Joan’s impressive bio and part one of our Q&A, conducted via email. Part two will post tomorrow. Joan has also provided images of some of her favorite pieces.

Writer Joan Renner

Joan Renner is a writer and a social historian. She has a passion for vintage cosmetics ephemera, and crime. Her blog, vintagepowderroom.com, explores history, women, art, and provides her with a transparent excuse to add to her collection of over 500 items.  Vintage Powder Room also has a Facebook page. As a tour guide for Esotouric she has developed a personality profile of Elizabeth Short (aka The Black Dahlia) based upon her choice of makeup.
She is a board member for the non-profit Photo Friends (affiliated with the Los Angeles Public Library), and is on the board of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles.  Additionally, she volunteers for the Los Angeles Police Historical Society, and the Los Angeles Conservancy.  She has been an invited lecturer at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and has lectured at the Queen Mary Art Deco Festival.  She is currently appearing in a segment on film noir for the Turner Classic Movies series Film Fanatics; as well as appearing in an episode of the ID Discovery Channel’s series Deadly Women (the episode is entitled “Outlaws”).
FNB: How long have you been collecting and how/why did you get started?
JR: I’ve always had an affinity for the past.  As a teenager, well before I had a notion of collecting anything specific, I would bring home bits and pieces like vintage clothing, photographs, books, even furniture.  My early collecting efforts mimicked a crow picking up shiny objects and taking them back to the nest.  I believe I began to collect because everything that I brought home made me feel comfortable – like being in the company of dear friends.
FNB: What’s the oldest piece and what dates does the entire collection span? Is it mostly made up of 1940s pieces or does it span several decades?
JR: The oldest pieces in my collection are face powder boxes which date from the late 1800s, and I don’t collect anything much later than 1955.  The face powder boxes produced during the “Golden Age of Commercial Art” (which was from the 1880s through the 1920s) are among my favorites.  Many of the designs are exquisite.
The boxes from 1880 to 1900 are particularly lovely because they are subtle in design and muted in color, very different from the boxes that would appear during the 1920s through the 1950s. The cosmetics ephemera created after 1920 frequently featured bolder designs in a riot of colors.
FNB: Do you have a favorite category, say lipsticks or compacts, or favorite piece?
JR: If I had to pick a favorite category it would be face powder boxes.  There’s something magical to me about them.  They represent more than just a cosmetics container; the boxes held the hopes and dreams of generations of women who endeavored to put their best face forward.

Marinello face powder ad c. 1910s

FNB: Do any of your pieces have a personal history or story attached?
JR: Much to my surprise, no, the boxes and other ephemera come to me so far removed from their original owners that the sellers don’t seem to know much about them.  That’s okay with me; I have an active imagination and invent my own stories for them.
The rest of our Q&A and more pictures will run tomorrow.
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