Film noir fashionistas in the spotlight

Edith Head worked on film noir titles such as “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Blvd.,” “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.”

Edith Head worked on film noir titles such as “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Blvd.,” “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.”

Happy birthday, Edith Head! She was born October 28, in San Bernardino, Calif. In her 60-year career, at Paramount and Universal, she worked on more than 1,131 films, received 35 Academy Award nominations and won eight Oscars, more than any other woman. (Walt Disney, with 22 Oscars, holds the record for a man.)

Grace Kelly was born on Nov. 12, 1929 in Philadelphia. She died on Sept. 14, 1982 in Monaco.

Grace Kelly was born on Nov. 12, 1929 in Philadelphia. She died on Sept. 14, 1982 in Monaco.

The exhibition From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly Beyond the Icon opens today at the James A. Michener Art Museum, near Philadelphia.

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Retro restaurants> FNB dishes on dining: Russell’s in Pasadena

Might noir master James M. Cain have drawn inspiration from Russell’s?

30 N. Fair Oaks Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91103

Hours: Open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Parking: Street or garage at 30 E. Union St.
Price: Lunch/dinner entrees: $10-$18; separate breakfast menu

The Set Up: Russell’s is a cozy, upscale diner that’s been around since 1930. James M. Cain’s novel “Mildred Pierce” (published in 1941 and made into a movie with Joan Crawford in 1945) was set in nearby Glendale. Mildred made her small fortune in the restaurant biz; perhaps Cain drew some culinary inspiration from this spot.

The Style: In terms of décor, Russell’s, with its red leather seats and chandeliers, feels more American bistro than trad diner, but then what’s wrong with some swank while you sup? Nothing in our book.

A slice of pie to make Mildred Pierce proud.

The Stuff: The lunch/dinner menu has a nice variety of meat, fish and pasta dishes along with burgers, sandwiches and salads. We tried the grilled salmon salad (the fillet comes on a generous bed of pristine romaine lettuce, tomatoes and vinaigrette dressing) and a glass of The Crossings New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. For dessert: cherry pie à la mode mode with coffee. Delicious, fresh and packed with fruit, the best slice of pie we’ve tried in quite a while.

The Sting: Would be nice to see a cocktail list, but Russell’s is licensed for wine and beer only.

The Standout: The food is top-notch and the service is excellent – friendly, attentive and relaxed. When we asked the server what kind of coffee was used, he went to the kitchen to check and brought out a small package of Apffels for us to take home. Lovely!

Btw, this weekend is the last chance to see “A Conversation with Edith Head,” starring Susan Claassen, at the Pasadena Playhouse. This great show closes Dec. 1.

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Greed at its glossiest in ‘The Strange Love of Martha Ivers’

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers/1946/Paramount/115 min.

The effects, both corrosive and subtle, of deep-seated greed form the core of “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” made for Paramount by prestige director Lewis Milestone. Known primarily for his war films, like the 1930 Oscar-winning classic “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and later for guiding the Rat Packers in the original Ocean’s Eleven (1960), Milestone is equally adept at noir.

An A-list picture with a budget to match, the film also boasts an A-list noir cast: “Double Indemnity’s” lethal dame Barbara Stanwyck as steely, unwavering Martha; Kirk Douglas in his film debut as Martha’s tough-on-the-outside-but-milquetoast-underneath alcoholic husband, District Attorney Walter O’Neil; the always-superb Van Heflin as Sam Masterson, Martha’s cocky ex-boyfriend; and gorgeous, statuesque Lizabeth Scott as Sam’s latest girlfriend, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks named Toni Marachek.

In some ways, this darkly melodramatic film is not a typical noir – Martha, the femme fatale, hails from a wealthy, prestigious family that’s made its fortune from the workers of a small industrial burg called Iverstown. We learn about the principal characters’ backgrounds and see Martha (Janis Wilson), Walter (Mickey Kuhn) and Sam (Darryl Hickman) as kids.

Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) likes to boss her husband Walter (Kirk Douglas). Walter likes to have a bottle nearby at all times.

Young Martha, fed up with her tyrannical spinster aunt/guardian, is on the verge of running away with Sam. She doesn’t quite make it, though, and one fateful night (need I mention dark and stormy?) the trio’s lives are changed permanently after Martha commits a terrible crime. Sam flees but returns nearly 20 years later, catching Martha’s eye again and making Walter squirm with guilt, which he tries to obliterate by drinking breakfast, lunch and dinner.

But in many ways, “Martha Ivers” is classic noir – a cynical, pessimistic mood; sharp visuals; characters trapped by secrets of the past and burdened with the weight of wrongdoing; love warped by a thirst for money and power. That said, not all is bleak – screenwriter Robert Rossen (“The Hustler”) provides a crackling good script with a sly twist, Edith Head designed the costumes, Miklós Rózsa wrote the score, the ideally cast actors nail their parts and there’s an upbeat ending. (Also, watch for Blake Edwards, uncredited, as a sailor/hitchhiker.)

Toni (Lizabeth Scott) and Sam (Van Heflin) become allies and more.

Every time I think I’ve found Heflin’s best performance, I see him in another movie and change my mind – for the next week or so this is my fave. Could anyone else but Heflin deliver a line like: “It’s the perfume I use that makes me smell so nice” and have it work so perfectly?

As a smalltime gambler who lives by his wits, Heflin’s Sam brims with swagger and sweet talk. Stanwyck’s Martha is more than up to the challenge of loving him. Douglas is supremely convincing in a difficult, textured role; Scott brings a sexy warmth and vulnerability to this girl who can’t seem to get a break.

And I particularly enjoyed the cherchez le femme element: setting all the evil into motion is little Martha’s beloved pet, a kitten named Bundles.

“The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” was recently released on Blu-ray by HD Cinema Classics.

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Edith, Head of her class: A shrewd woman with a sharp eye and unprecedented success in Hollywood

Famed costume designer Edith Head knew that clothes should underscore an actor’s character, not upstage it. And she applied the same discipline to dealing with Hollywood’s elite, putting every ounce of effort into making them look their absolute best while deflecting attention from herself.

Edith Head

Actress Susan Claassen

A shrewd approach along with her natural talent for design, a gift for navigating studio politics and a tremendous amount of hard work made her one of the movie industry’s most successful women.

In her 60-year career, at Paramount and Universal, she worked on more than 1,131 films, received 35 Academy Award nominations and won eight Oscars, more than any other woman. (Walt Disney, with 26 Oscars, holds the record for a man.)

This savvy lady with her tailored suits, neat little bun and statement specs comes out of the shadows and into the spotlight in “A Conversation With Edith Head,” which opened Friday night at LA’s Odyssey Theatre. And she’s spirited, strong, funny and flawed as played by actress Susan Claassen.

One of her peccadilloes was a disdain for modesty. “I’m not different from other designers, I’m the best,” Claassen tells the audience matter of factly. Another memorable Head aphorism: “You can have anything you want in life, if you dress for it.”

Tinseltown anecdotes and stories of working with the stars are sprinkled throughout the play, which is set in 1981. Head died in October of that year at age 83, still under contract to Universal, having just completed the Steve Martin film “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.”

The show recreates Head's cocktail dress for Bette Davis (far left) and a gown for Elizabeth Taylor (far right).

The format includes questions from the audience as well as free advice on your sartorial choices. Since Claassen called me stunning and asked if I was a model, naturally I think the woman is the greatest genius known to Western civilization. ;)

But, joking aside, Claassen is brilliant in this role, capturing the character’s gestures, mannerisms and demeanor without mimicry or impersonation. Claassen reveals the enormous power Head wielded through her sketch pad and pencil as well as the sacrifices (15-hour days, six days a week in her heyday), self-doubt and sadness that were facets of her extraordinary life.

A closer look at the recreated dress for Bette Davis in "All About Eve" from 1950.

Claassen, who recently received an Ovation nomination for Lead Actress in a Play for this part, co-wrote the work with Paddy Calistro, author of the book “Edith Head’s Hollywood.” The idea came to Claassen while watching a TV biography about Head.

Says Claassen: “Not only do I bear a striking resemblance to Edith, but we share the same love for clothes and fashion. … There are many myths about her, but she was a discreet, tenacious personality. She knew whose hips needed clever disguising and made sure those legendary stars always looked the part.”

Head was a frequent collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock and added élan to the wardrobe of film noir stars, dressing, for example, Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity,” Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Blvd.,” Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious,” Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief,” Kim Novak in “Vertigo,” and Tippi Hedren in “The Birds.”

She also dressed Bette Davis as the glamorous actress Margo Channing in “All About Eve” and designed Elizabeth Taylor’s white ball gown in “A Place in the Sun.” In fact, she worked with nearly all the Hollywood greats, including Mae West, Clara Bow, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

When in 1967 Paramount chose not to renew her contract, she was hired by Universal, thanks to her friendship with Hitchcock, who perhaps really was her favorite director, despite her practical policy of naming her favorite director as the one for whom she was currently working.

Opening night fell on Head's birthday. Cake and champagne were in order, natch.

Though Head’s motto was to accentuate the positive and camouflage the negative, the chapter of her childhood spent in the Nevada desert was good training for holding her own in Hollywood. She was, she said, used to dealing with scorpions.

Opening night coincided with what would have been Head’s 114th birthday so, after the show, party guests sipped champagne and ate red-velvet birthday cake, donated by Susie Cakes.

“A Conversation With Edith Head” is a guest production at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, 90025. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Nov. 13. (The play premiered in Tucson, Ariz., in 2002 and has since played in many US cities and abroad.) Tickets are $40. For more information: 310-477-2055;

Photos from the production are copyright of Film Noir Blonde.

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THR on red-carpet beauty, what Head said, Zoe’s dough

The Hollywood Reporter’s recent style issue was packed with great stories. For instance, Meg Hemphill spotted four awards beauty trends that she predicts we’ll be seeing for months to come. They are:

Think bright pink for spring.

1. Bright pink lips: Who doesn’t love a flirty pink pout? Not Scarlett Johansson, who wore MAC’s Sheen Supreme in Behave Yourself, $14.50, on Oscar night, or Claire Danes, who dazzled at the SAGs with Joli Rouge in 709 Parisian Pink, $24, by Clarins. Shown here is MAC’s Full Fuchsia.

2. Messy side-dos: Let loose with a softly asymmetrical look. Hairstylist Laini Reeves, creator of Amy Adams’ up-do for the Globes, called the effect “1920s with a twist.”

3. Soft makeup: Nars Illuminating Cream, $29, was key to Olivia Wilde’s sheer glow at the Golden Globes. Makeup artist Spencer Barnes was going for “a soft, timeless look that wasn’t focused on trendy color schemes or any one bold application.”

4. Retro waves: Frederic Fekkai hairstylist Adir Abergel took a cue from old Hollywood and Rita Hayworth, then updated the look for Anne Hathaway on Globes night.

Edith Head

A must-read: Sam Wasson on the legacy of A-list costume designer Edith Head. The story is pegged to the release of two new books: “Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer” and “The Dress Doctor: Prescriptions for Style from A to Z,” an adaptation of Head’s best-selling tome from 1959.

The spread features pictures from “Vertigo,” “Rear Window,” “The Birds” and other movies. Love this quotation from Head: “Clothes not only can make the woman – they can make her several different women. There’s no one style; there’s a style for a mood.”

THR’s cover story by Shirley Halperin details the empire of Rachel Zoe Inc., “a multiplatform brand powerhouse.” A companion piece names Hollywood ’s 25 most powerful stylists. The top four, after Zoe, are: Kate Young, Petra Flannery, Jen Rade and Anna Bingemann.

Other exiting news: Zoe and husband Rodger Berman are parents to a baby boy. Their first child, Skyler Morrison Berman, was born March 24 in Los Angeles.

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