“It’s Not Just Who But When…”
This statement was made by an acquaintance of mine some years ago when the question was prompted, “Who would you like to meet more than anyone else?” And from that very moment I fully and completely realized how important timing is when it comes to the reality of a person. Often the ideal timing is that ideal cusp where the fame is new and surprising to the person themselves. Where they are overcome with both the humility of that responsibility and possibly even embarrassed by it. It is certainly when they are most thankful. And certainly ever since that initial conversation I’ve always reiterated when it comes to any such list, “It’s not just who but when…”
Now as a wrinkle, this ongoing series of portraits will only specifically deal with the women of the last 75 years of so who I consider to be the Most Beautiful and Alluring in the world. I’m well aware that the internet can quickly descend into a game OMG SHE’S HOT, LET’S OGLE HER! (though ogle is probably not used that often) and we find ourselves skirting into objectifying and ultimately even exploitative territory. Please know that that is anything but the goal here. The goal is reflect on moments in time, go over some film and television history, talk about the nature of image, and engage the subject of sexuality in media forms. And yes, most of it will be in adoring circumstances so don’t expect much of sterile criticism, but that is definitely the world of thought it will be coming from.
This ongoing series will attempt to go chronologically.
Hoo boy. Veronica Lake sure had a look.
… But let’s be honest. It’s mostly that hair. A wavy golden lock cresting over from a part so straight that scientists probably use it to correct their instruments. That hair hangs over the side of her face in that specific, alluring manner whose mystery begs for attention and awe. And that obscuring facet simply highlights the exposed side of her face with that devastatingly expressive arched eyebrow of hers; mere shifts in latitude and that baby signifies all the things a dame of the silver screen needs: amusement, bewilderment, an possible invitation… or trouble.
A lot of folks don’t realize she was also impossibly short (didn’t crack 5 feet). Then again a lot of classic movie stars were really short so any surprise should be lumped in with the collective bunch, but Veronica’s frame just seemed so svelte that the mental computation of here real-life proportions seems to melt ones brain. Getting past her petite physiology one realizes there are more important considerations. Like how a lot of folks like to debate whether or not she was actually any good. This seems like a silly thing to question to me. Her early rolls often found her as a high voiced bubbly school girl and her femme fatale roles mostly used the aforementioned hair/eyebrow affectation as she put on a sultry deep voice that always came a little off kilter. So yes. There was something a bit off about those when compared to some of the best actresses in the business, but that seems more like a matter of being slightly misused (instead of wholly misused).
Luckily, there was a director out there who knew exactly what to do with Veronica Lake. This is not a unique phenomenon. An actor may have a certain unfocused or commercial nature that suddenly gets honed into something far more interesting and substantial. Think Adam Sandler in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. Dicaprio teaming with Scorsese. Lake had the same fortune as them and was able to have her real potential shown on screen. So who was this mystery enabler?
First, a question: what director has perhaps had more influence on the Coen Brothers, over any other? So often the Coen’s brilliant voice is credited as being an amalgamation of many things, delicately blended into their own sensibility. This is true to a certain point, but the better answer is Preston Sturges.
I will not mince words. Preston Sturges is my favorite director of the classic film era. I’m amazed how many film lovers my age have not seen his movies, let alone heard of him. He was a real auteur in an age where Directors and Writers were part of the golden age compartmentalized machine, churning out films for the masses. Sturges and Welles were pretty much the only substantial guys writing their own stuff. Sturges was wildly influential towards developing a darker, more interesting voice as he became pioneer for Billy Wilder to follow just a few short years later. Wilder gets so much credit, but it’s all there in Sturges before him: the sense of irony, the crushed blacks and wonderful grey tones of the cinematography; Sturges was simply ahead of everyone. The aforementioned love of Sturges by the Coens is evident in the many ways they’ve been remaking themes and tones from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS througout their filmography. Heck, BARTON FINK has an achingly similar plot (a naive filmmaker wants to connect with his roots and be a voice of lower class struggle). And guess what the name of the movie is that Sullivan is making? Yup. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”… yeah… you do the math. But more universally, both Sturges and the Coens are primarly concerned with breaking down the hollywood “truths”: the black and white morality and clear-cut lessons; things like good behavior being rewarded, the guy gets the girl, the noble crusade, really all the standard tropes of movie-dom. But always examined with a particular sardonic, hilarious bent of course. Do not mistake either for being obtuse or preachy.
Back to Veronica Lake. So she finally gets a role of substantial value with Sturges in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941). She’s simply “The Girl” (actual credited name for the character), a wannabe actress who gets to show of a full range of humility, quiet desperation, and honesty, yet still let her show off the dexterity of her acting chops come the various “audition and acting” modes. It’s all top-notch stuff. The kind of thing where you get to convey your talent and yet strike resonance. And I love her in it.
Here’s there meeting scene in Sullivan’s Travel’s. (remember Sullivan is director going undercover as a poor man to get to know the real plight of the people). The scene is a slow burn. What makes her so good does really start coming in until about 2 minutes into the scene. Enjoy!
Not bad eh? Hel,l she’s better than Ladd in these scenes (Though Ladd is great in his naive pitch-man scenes to the studio too). So Again, to reiterate… I really love this movie. Check out the whole thing if you get a chance and other Sturges movies too. I have his book of screenplays and they were practically a masterclass in writing (while understanding the antiquated nature of course. Think of it as a classic foundation. You gotta learn how to play catch before you can actually pitch).
After the film’s (and her’s) success, Veronica Lake kept on trucking, establishing herself as a major star in the early 40’s. But like most of these stories, everything didn’t stay that way. She had a gradual (and somewhat public) descent into alcohol and mental troubles that have sort of come to define a huge part of her legacy. But so often their referenced independent of circumstance. Her slide all stemmed back to a on-set accident where she tripped on some film equipment while pregnant and began hemorrhaging. The problems created by incident from it eventually led to the loss of this second child just after he was born. It completely devastated her and ingrained in her a kind of loathing of filmmaking, yet it’s amazing how little this event is talked about in her decent. Doesn’t it seem like this kind of devastation cannot be calculated?
It seems like these tragic conclusions keep having to be brought up in this ongoing series. I don’t really like talking about them or even really thinking about them. There’s just so much more that’s important to talk about when it comes to these wonderful actress. I realize that this kind of mental polishing is very un-Sturgian/un-Coenian, but it’s also very human to me. There’s a better legacy beyond tragedy. For Veronica Lake, there’s so much more.
Like Sullivan’s Travels.
Like that singular fantastic performance.
Like her unrealized potential (she never worked with Sturges again, though often did with Ladd).
And yeah… that hair.