“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.
It’s hard to argue with the merits of Gene Tierney inclusion into this series, considering she once played the literal idealization of a woman.
Otto Perminger’s LAURA (1944) is considered one of the semi-classics of golden age cinema and I personally hold it in even higher regard. It is a deftly constructed story with shades of CITIZEN KANE(1941)’s flashback structure, only instead of focusing the life of a power magnate it delves into a classic femme fatale.(1) Honestly, I love the tone of this film: the traditional atmosphere of the mysterious noir, and yet a quasi-aloof commentary on the nature female projection by males. Aside from the similarly-eponymous titles, I see a lot of influence from Hitchcock’s REBECCA (1941) in the film, particularly in the use of zooms and slow/voyeuristic camera movement.
Perminger was always a bit of kindred spirit to Hitchcock and a bit more of a practitioner of subtlety (by classical standards). While Hitchcock was the revolutionary, the hit-maker, and driving force behind some beautiful, overt, and shocking films, the one thing he never really had in him was a sensesubtlety. I’m not really sure he needed it or anything as he was so assured at working with bold cinema, a graceful character study would just seem limp by his usual standards. Perminger, however, was perfectly adept at taking the thriller and working within a less heightened cinematic style. Most classical noirs feel stilted to the modern viewer and Hitchcock movies are so uncannily slick/Hitchockian (and therefore “dated” in their own way) that the same modern viewer has a way of relegating them to “old timey” status. Meanwhile, the first thing that jumps out at you about LAURA is just how damn modern it all feels. Check out some of the moving camera work and see if you feel the same.
Note only watch the first two minutes or so, but you’ll get a sense of the cinematography:
The great thing about LAURA is ended up a being a big hit and it marked both Otto’s arrival as an elite director and provided a star-making turn for Tierney.
And yes, she acquits herself most admirably in the role. It helps that Laura herself is so well-conceived to begin with(2), as the very notion of an ambiguous female ideal who is constructed from the various accounts of other characters just has so many possibilities. It’s the sort of thing that just begs to indulge in our male voyeuristic tendencies and wish-fulfillment and supply commentary from there. She plays Laura in the flashbacks as a sort of blank slate, again: “a projection of the male ideal.” Unlike most Hollywood female roles which are written that way (often unbeknownst to the writer) and usually completely undermine the humanism of the character, LAURA chooses to relish in the murky morality of that ideal.
Tierney takes what could be a somewhat gimmicky concept and infuses it with this alternately subdued/haunted presence. The subdued/blank canvass act is a tricky dynamic if you think about it: she could so easily tread into the kind of territory where Laura is either The Joke of a perfect woman or offensively/un-ironically the perfect woman that we see in most movies, but she knows that the role has to play. It’s not the Coens and it’s not the kind of modern lead-age comedy where that stuff would fly. So She splits the difference beautifully. It’s 100% functional in the noir universe, but just enough of that “blankness” let’s us know that she and Perminger are criticizing the idea that man’s ideal woman is a vacant vessel; the literal trophy wife.(3).
It’s all so perfectly subversive. By the time we’re introduced to the fact that Laura is not really dead and instead in hiding (afraid of the murderer), she exhibits such a subtle, but beautiful change in personality that affects us substantially.Yes, Laura’s very much the same beautiful object of desire, but she’s far-less object-like: emotionally wounded, scared, distrustful. To use my “trophy” footnote example, she is the victim of a male’s desire to literally kill her and turn her into his trophy. Her emotional reaction is perfectly synonymous with the female reaction to being objectified.
I love the layers. It plays perfectly straight to the audience as a classic noir, but the subtext still rules (Hitchcock would later be more forthright in the 50’s and his subtexts would turn into very literal “text” if you will). I really do consider LAURA to be a feminist film even thought it may not appear that way at all (yes if you examine the ending from the detective’s angle it could be construed as that typical movie guy-saves/gets-girl sexist motif, but the first half of the film and the portrayal of the villain play exactly like criticism to me. It’s the way we assume something about our “ideal images” and how we mistake them for “reality.” The mistake is a costly one and often leads to our failings in reality. OUr happiness in life is often reflective of our ability to reconcile the two.
It’s an important question. It’s actually rather analogous to what I do in these series of columns: many of these women had public presences on screen that I find fascinating, and yet their real lives were often tumultuous existences (Tierney had a tragic life for sure). My admiration of them is largely a projection based on surface. I’m regailing them for their beauty, for the moments when they’re putting up a facade. They’re starring in movies often written and directed by men. Aesthetically there’s similarity to dolls being set up in a diarama: models, mannequins, trophies. Sure film can subvert that in some ways because it’s “sculpting in time” but I can’t lose sight of the fact that that’s who I’m idealizing. I’m fully aware of how potentially damaging they entire dynamic is.
For some reason I think that because I’m aware of it and trying to handle it responsibly I’m somehow absolved of it… I know that doesn’t fully work.
I just have to find a way reconcile the two.
1 – I realize this could imply that Laura from LAURA is the prototypical “bad girl” femme fatale, but don’t make that assumption; a femme fatale can just as easily (if not preferably) be a good natured girl who gets wrapped up in a whole bunch of trouble, and often bringing the male protagonist down the rabbit hole so to speak.
2- Even if the dialogue comes of a little stilted and on the nose to the modern viewer.
3- People don’t think about the meaning trophy wife as much as they should. It’s critical already, but if you literalize it a trophy also is an inanimate object. speechless. lifeless. pretty. and only signifies the accomplishment of those who obtain them (or possible the ones who “constructed” it). You get the idea. It’s both highly accurate and more insulting then you think.