Ahead of her class: Remembering a legendary designer

Edith Head won eight Oscars.

Edith Head won eight Oscars.

Edith Head was born today in 1897 in San Bernardino, Calif. Starting with scant experience and no design training, she nonetheless had a stellar career – at Paramount and Universal, frequently collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock.

Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak, Veronica Lake, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren, Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn and Katharine Hepburn were just some of the women she dressed.

Head won eight Academy Awards for costume design. She died on Oct, 24, 1981. You can learn more about her work at the Academy’s Hollywood Costume show.

 Slacking off

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times recently shared this nifty item from 1938 about a woman who went to jail for wearing slacks in courtroom. Yikes! Times have changed, just a bit.

 Helen Hulick defied convention by wearing slacks. Photo by Andrew H. Arnott/L.A. Times Archive/UCLA

Helen Hulick defied convention by wearing slacks. Photo by Andrew H. Arnott/L.A. Times Archive/UCLA

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Skirball Cultural Center’s The Noir Effect exhibition explores the far-reaching influence of film noir

ROUSE & JONES, Dead End, 2009, courtesy of the artists.

ROUSE & JONES, Dead End, 2009, courtesy of the artists.

Pick up a glossy magazine and there’s a good chance you’ll see a fashion layout or an advertisement featuring a mysterious, glamorous woman, dressed to kill, shot in high-contrast black and white. She’s retro but cutting-edge contemporary as well.

Scroll through a Netflix menu and it won’t be long before you find a slew of crime movies with archetypal characters: the private eye, the corrupt cop, the vicious gangster and the woman who lures men to lust and doom.

Why does noir – a term that covers much more than movies – continue to intrigue and delight? My theory is that film noir’s strikingly elegant style, moral ambiguity and political awareness put the pictures way ahead of their time when they were made in the 1940s and ’50s. Not surprisingly then, they still resonate with audiences of today.

Page from You Have Killed Me. Illustrations by Joëlle Jones and story by Jamie S. Rich, 2009.

Page from You Have Killed Me. Illustrations by Joëlle Jones and story by Jamie S. Rich, 2009.

At the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles, running in conjunction with the Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 exhibition, The Noir Effect examines how the film noir genre gave rise to major contemporary trends in American popular culture, art and media.

The show, which runs Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014 to March 1, 2015, highlights noir elements such as the city, the femme fatale, the anti-hero and moral codes.

As Skirball Cultural Center Assistant Curator Linde Lehtinen says: “Noir remains a powerful approach and style because its dark, urban sensibility and its perspective on identity, morality and the shifting nature of the modern city continue to be relevant and timely.”

Bill Armstrong, Untitled (Film Noir #1401), 2011.

Bill Armstrong, Untitled (Film Noir #1401), 2011.

In addition to clips from neo-noir films such as “Chinatown” (1974, Roman Polanski) and “Brick” (2005, Rian Johnson), the exhibition will feature contemporary art, literature, photography and fashion advertising as well as children’s books, games and comics, including Luke Cage Noir and Spider-Man Noir.

Featured artists include Bill Armstrong, Ronald Corbin, Helen K. Garber, David Lynch, Daido Moriyama, Karina Nimmerfall, Jane O’Neal, Alex Prager, Rouse & Jones, Ed Ruscha and Cindy Sherman.

The Noir Effect will allow visitors to reinvent noir for themselves. A costume wall and portrait station invite visitors to pose for their own noir-inspired “museum selfie,” while writing materials encourage on-the-spot noir narratives. The Skirball Cultural Center will also hold an online photo contest as a way to gather visitor snapshots of L.A. neighborhoods captured in classic noir style.

Ed Ruscha, 51% Angel / 49% Devil, 1984, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Graphic Arts Council Fund.

Ed Ruscha, 51% Angel / 49% Devil, 1984, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Graphic Arts Council Fund.

Additionally, the site-specific installation Café Vienne pays tribute to the important cultural role of the Viennese coffee house. In the early 20th century, female artists and writers embraced these coffee houses as places for debate, networking and inspiration.

Contemporary visual artist Isa Rosenberger (b. 1969) uses this historical setting to address the life and work of Austrian- American Jewish writer Gina Kaus (1893–1985), once known in literary circles as “Queen of the Café.” A best-selling novelist before she was driven from Europe by the Nazi regime, Kaus eventually emigrated to the U.S. where she became a Hollywood screenwriter.

We at FNB are very excited about this terrific programming and can’t wait for it to start. We’ve long been captivated by film noir and it’s gratifying to find so many others who share our passion.

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Noiristas have gobs of events to choose from on Halloween

“Nosferatu” is considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time.

“Nosferatu” is considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time.

When Halloween falls on a Friday night, why stay at home? There’s a whole lot going on in Los Angeles.

Need a primer on German Expressionism? Watch “Nosferatu” (1922, F. W. Murnau) – one of the greatest horror movies of all time and a vampire classic with brilliant visual style – on the big screen with live music accompaniment at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Have you ever wanted to dress up as a work of art? Then you’re in luck because Lacma is hosting its 11th annual costume ball. Music, dancing, food and drink! Oh, and you can see the excellent exhibition: Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s.

Starting at Thursday midnight, pull an all-nighter of the living dead. The Crest Theater in Westwood is hosting a super series: “Night of the Living Dead,” “Child’s Play,” “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” “Dawn of the Dead” and “Blacula.”

The New Beverly Cinema is hosting an all-nighter hosted by Eli Roth.

Not to be outdone, Cinefamily is putting on Childhood Haunts, an all-night audio/visual bash.  As the organizers put it: “This signature Mondo video collision covers the hazy, freaky-deaky memories of these pivotal pieces of films and TV that pretty much screwed us up for life.”

The Aero Theatre in Santa Monica is showing “The Lego Movie” in 3-D!  Come in costume as your favorite character, take photos and get free toys and treats, says the Aero.

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Light & Noir at the Skirball Cultural Center tells a spellbinding story of immigration and innovation, set in Hollywood

Joan Bennett entraps Edward G. Robinson in 1944’s “The Woman in the Window,” directed by Fritz Lang. The film will screen at the Skirball Cultural Center as part of Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

Joan Bennett entraps Edward G. Robinson in 1944’s “The Woman in the Window,” directed by Fritz Lang. The film will screen at the Skirball Cultural Center as part of Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

“Making movies is a little like walking into a dark room,” said legendary director Billy Wilder, who made more than 50 films and won six Academy Awards. “Some people stumble across furniture, others break their legs but some of us see better in the dark than others.”

“Sunset Blvd.” won three Oscars: writing, music and art direction. Shown: Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder.

“Sunset Blvd.” won three Oscars: writing, music and art direction. Shown: Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder.

By the time the Austrian-born journalist, screenwriter and director came to America in 1934, he’d seen more than his share of darkness, on screen and off. Wilder left Europe to escape the Nazis; his mother died in Auschwitz.

He joined many other prominent Jewish artists (such as directors Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Fred Zinnemann, composer Franz Waxman, and writers Salka Viertel and Franz Werfel) as they left their homes and careers in German-speaking countries to build new lives and find work in Hollywood.

Starting on Thursday, Oct. 23, a new exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 highlights the experiences of these émigré actors, directors, writers and composers.

They came to California at a pivotal time in the world’s history and in the evolution of the movie-making capital, greatly contributing to Hollywood’s Golden Age and raising the artistic bar for its productions.

In particular, film noir was born when the talents of these European émigrés merged with the hard-boiled stories of American pulp crime fiction and the subtle sensibilities of French Poetic Realism.

Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell star in “Pitfall.”

Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell star in “Pitfall.”

Films, concept drawings, costumes, posters, photographs and memorabilia will help tell the story of Hollywood’s formative era through the émigré lens. Accompanying the show is a plethora of events: film screenings, readings, talks, tours, courses (photography and cooking with a Café Vienne installation), comedy, family programs, a holiday pop-up shop and more.

Organized by the Skirball Cultural Center and co-presented with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the exhibition will run through March 1, 2015.

Running in conjunction with the show is The Noir Effect, which explores how the film noir genre gave rise to major contemporary trends in American popular culture, art and media. (More on that in an upcoming post.)

Of course, I’m especially looking forward to the impressive lineup of films. On Oct. 30, Jan-Christopher Horak, a German-exile cinema historian and director of the UCLA Film and Television Archives, will describe how Hollywood became the prime employer of European émigré filmmakers as Nazi persecution grew. The lecture will be followed by a screening of Austrian émigré Fritz Lang’s “Hangmen Also Die!”

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster play doomed lovers in “Criss Cross,” (1949, Robert Siodmak). The movie will play in January.

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster play doomed lovers in “Criss Cross,” (1949, Robert Siodmak). The movie will play in January.

(Additionally, continuing through April 26, 2015, at the Los Angeles County Museum is Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s. The series explores approximately 25 masterworks of German Expressionist cinema, a national style that had international impact.)

At the Skirball Cultural Center, on Dec. 7, fashion expert Kimberly Truhler will discuss the effect of World War II on film costume design and American fashion in the 1940s. Gabriela Hernandez, founder of Bésame Cosmetics, will share the history of make-up and tips on achieving the film noir look.

And in January, the Skirball Cultural Center will host the film series “The Intriguante: Women of Intrigue in Film Noir,” which will feature: “The Woman in the Window,” “Pitfall,” “Criss Cross,” “The File on Thelma Jordon” and the 2008 documentary “Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood.”

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Happy birthday, Marsha Hunt!

Marsha Hunt w web

She was born in Chicago on Oct. 17, 1917. The talented actress and singer’s Hollywood career was hurt by being blacklisted. But she starred in several film-noir titles, such as “Raw Deal,” “Mary Ryan, Detective” and “Kid Glove Killer” as well as “Carnegie Hall,” a 1947 musical directed by noir master Edgar G. Ulmer, and the 1971 anti-war drama “Johnny Got His Gun.”

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‘Fury’ hits hard with a powerful story and fine performances

Fury posterFury/2014/Columbia Pictures/134 min.

Writer/director David Ayer’s “Fury,” a World War II drama, is a force to behold, with one of Brad Pitt’s finest performances.

The movie is set in April of 1945 and the war is coming to an end, but this is no gradual winding down. Instead, it’s a tooth and nail fight, a savage final struggle to defeat the Nazis on the European front. Pitt plays an army sergeant nicknamed Wardaddy who commands a Sherman tank and a crew of men.

Boyd (Shia LaBeouf) clings steadfastly to religion to get him through. Jon Bernthal’s Coon and Michael Peña’s Gordo gave up hope a long time ago. Logan Lerman, as a new addition named Norman, shows us a heart-wrenching evolution from paper-pusher to Nazi-slayer.

The soldiers hold their own for a while but, as they push through enemy lines, it becomes frighteningly clear that they are far outnumbered by the Germans.

Pitt melds fierce intensity and psychological battle scars with layers of mystery, dignity and reserve. The rest of the cast (including Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg as German women the men encounter) match him, beat for beat, thanks to assured and nuanced direction from Ayer.

‘Fury’ can be hard to watch at times – it’s gory and graphic from the start – but war is hell, remember. And this is one hell of a story.

“Fury” opens in theaters today.

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Betty Halbreich dishes on decades of plain speaking and proper sizing in ‘I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style’

Betty HalbreichMy favorite tip from Betty Halbreich, a straight-shooting Svengali of style, is this: “I would never in a million years dream of going out in public barefaced. I have to put on lipstick and mascara even to travel half a block for a loaf of bread. How do I know I won’t meet Prince Charming on the way?”

Most mornings, the corner store Halbreich heads to is the world-famous luxury emporium Bergdorf Goodman at 5th Avenue and 58th Street, near the Plaza Hotel and Central Park. Halbreich, 86, runs the store’s Solutions (personal shopping) department; she started working there in 1976.

In her latest book “I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style” (co-written with Rebecca Paley), the vendeuse of elegance looks back on nearly nine decades of plain speaking and proper sizing.

(This is Halbreich’s second book. She appeared in the 2013 documentary “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” and is working with Lena Dunham on a new HBO show.)

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, an only child of wealthy parents, one of her favorite pastimes was playing in her mother’s closet. As a wife, mother and socialite in New York City, she passed her days shopping and dressing to the nines. I loved hearing about the luscious meals her parents served when entertaining and her swanky nightlife as a newlywed in Manhattan.

Halbreich’s seemingly enviable life, however, was both charmed and cursed. After her marriage fell apart and she attempted suicide, she found solace through work.

She’s quick to point out, though, that she’s not a great saleswoman. In fact, she never learned to use the cash register. Her true talent is seeing what clients crave under the sequins, lace, taffeta or feathers – advice, a surrogate mother, a shoulder to cry on.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Halbreich also has an unerring eye, uncommon discipline and understated good taste. These traits have helped her dress Candice Bergen, Liza Minnelli, Mia Farrow, Betsy Cronkite and Joan Rivers, just to name a few. She even instructed former President Ford on the right way to hold a garment bag.

Halbreich’s recollections make a breezy read – easy as slipping into a favorite pair of jeans. Denim, by the way, is something Halbreich wouldn’t be caught dead in.

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Modern filmmakers offer their takes on neo-noir

As always, noir is in the zeitgeist. Filmmakers seem eternally inspired by the genre or, as some would argue, style.  Here are three new projects that have roots in the dark alleys and shady corners of the past.

This Last Lonely Place” is a thriller by Steve Anderson about an Iraq war vet/cab driver and his twisted, noir-drenched drive through the mean streets of Los Angeles. Anderson’s film was executive produced by the Humphrey Bogart Estate and recently received high praise from Leonard Maltin.

Documentary writer/director Sonia Bible is working on a film called “The Witch of Kings Cross” about an outspoken artist named Rosaleen Norton. Also an occultist, Norton scandalized 1950s Australia with her erotic paintings, brazen sex life and criticism of Christian middle-class values.

Meanwhile, director Justin Baird’s noir comedy “Mike Case in: The Big Kiss Off” is now available on Amazon Prime: http://amzn.to/1nmH9gU

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Hollywood Costume comes to the Wilshire May Co. building

 Tippi Hedren’s pale green dress from “The Birds,” shot by Richard Harbaugh / ©A.M.P.A.S.


Tippi Hedren’s pale green dress from “The Birds,” shot by Richard Harbaugh / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Starting on Oct. 2, you can stroll through history in style at the Hollywood Costume exhibition, which is housed in the Wilshire May Company building (at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles), the future location of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and sponsored by Swarovski, this show explores costume design as an essential tool of cinematic storytelling. (The show runs through March 2, 2015.)

The designer Adrian at work.

The designer Adrian at work.

Summing it up perfectly was a quotation inside the show from Adrian, a legendary Golden Age designer and creator of “The Wizard of Oz” ruby slippers, which are on display. Said Adrian: “Few people in an audience watching a great screen production realize the importance of any gown worn by the feminine star. They may notice that it’s attractive, that they would like to have it copied, that it is becoming.

“The fact that it was definitely planned to mirror a definite mood, to be as much a part of the play as the lines or the scenery seldom occurs to them. But that most assuredly is true.”

More than 150 iconic costumes curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis will be on display – including Marlene Dietrich’s costumes from “Morocco” (1930) and Marilyn Monroe’s infamous white dress from “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) as well as Jared Leto’s costume from “Dallas Buyers Club and several entries from “American Hustle and “The Great Gatsby” (all 2013).

Film noir makes a showing (there’d be trouble otherwise!) with Kim Novak’s emerald-green dress from “Vertigo” and Tippi Hedren’s pale green dress from “The Birds,” not to mention examples from “Mildred Pierce,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “L.A. Confidential,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Basic Instinct” and “No Country for Old Men.” The work of legendary Edith Head is well represented.

Curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis

Curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis

In conjunction with the Hollywood Costume exhibition, the Academy will present screenings, starting Saturday with a terrific double feature: the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men and “The Big Lebowski.” Several of the featured costume designers will appear in person to introduce their films.

Designer and curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis originally approached the Academy several years ago with the idea for the show. The Academy passed on Hollywood Costume, so Landis took it to London’s V&A, which snapped it up.

Now the Academy apparently feels the time is right for the show. Commenting on the irony of London having the show first, Landis said, at the press preview Monday: “You can’t be a prophet in your own land.”

Most assuredly.

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Film noir and shoulder pads spur Crawford’s comeback

Wanted to share my talk on “Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz) on Saturday, Sept. 20, at the West Hollywood Library. The library’s Corey Roskin introduced me. Hope you enjoy!

The movie was popular with critics and audiences, and it garnered six Academy Award nominations including best picture. Joan Crawford won for best actress. The superb cast members (Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson, Bruce Bennett, Zachary Scott) balance Crawford beautifully. Arden and Blyth both got Oscar nods for supporting actress.

The screening was part of WeHo Reads, a noir-themed month-long literary program.

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