Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dan O'Bannon Passes On

Dan O'Bannon, the screenwriter who wrote the screenplays for Dark Star, Alien, and Total Recall, passed Thursday at the age of 63. He had suffered from Crohn's disease for thirty years.

Dan O'Bannon was born on September 30, 1946 in St. Louis. He majored in fine art at Washington University in St. Louis, then attended MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. In 1970 he graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor's degree in film. It was while he was at USC that he met John Carpenter. Together they collaborated on a forty minute short entitled Dark Star in 1970. Together they expanded the short into the feature film Dark Star, released in 1974, with Carpenter directing and O'Bannon performing duties from scripting to editing. Although Dark Star bombed at the box office, it has come to be regarded as a cult classic. O'Bannon was part of the special effects team on Star Wars, working as a computer animator. He was set to supervise the special effects on an adaptation of Dune to be directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, but the project fell through. It was in the wake of this failed project that he wrote the screenplay for Alien. Unlike Dark Star, Alien proved to be a hit at the box office.

O'Bannon wrote two of the segments for the animated feature Heavy Metal. He also wrote the screenplay for Blue Thunder with Don Jakoby, and voiced his displeasure when the script was extensively rewritten. In 1985 Dan O'Bannon directed his first film, the cult horror comedy Return of the Living Dead, for which he also wrote the screenplay. From the Eighties into the Nineties he wrote the screenplays for Lifeforce, the 1986 remake of Invaders from Mars, Total Recall (with Ronald Shusett and Gary Goldman), Screamers, and Bleeders. In 1992 he directed The Resurrected, based on H. P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. At the time of his death he was working on a script entitled The Pain Clinic.

Dan O'Bannon was among the most talented screenwriters of the past forty years. Working almost solely in the genres of science fiction and horror throughout his career, he scripted movies that were intelligent, thought provoking, and could be interpreted on multiple levels. He also had a knack for knowing what audiences would enjoy. His film Alien would produce an entire franchise, one that lasts to this day. The Return of the Living Dead would not only become a cult film, but would produce four sequels. Dan O'Bannon was one of those rare talents who could create entertainment that was not only intelligent, but would also prove to be popular.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Godspeed Jennifer Jones

Oscar winning actress Jennifer Jones passed yesterday at the age of 90. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in The Song of Bernadette and was nominated four other times.

Jennifer Jones was born Phylis Isley in Tulsa, Oklahoma on March 2, 1919. Her parents operated and were stars of the Isley Stock Co., a tent show which travelled the Midwest. While still in school she became interested in acting. She attended Monte Cassino Junior College in Tulsa, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

As Phyllis Isley she appeared in the John Wayne B Western New Frontier in 1939, as well as Dick Tracy's G-Men. Achieving little success in Hollywood, she returned to New York City where she worked part time as a model for the Powers Agency. Eventually she tested for David O. Selznick, who groomed her for stardom and gave her a new name--"Jennifer Jones." She was cast in the lead role of Selznick's production The Song of Bernadette. Not only was she nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in the film, but she also won. From the Forties into the Fifties, Jennifer Jones was at the peak of her career. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for four more films: Since You Went Away, Love Letters, Duel in the Sun, and Love is a Many Splendoured Thing. She also made such films as Portrait of Jennie, Madame Bovary, Beat the Devil, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and A Farewell to Arms. 

Sadly, it was in the Sixties that Jennifer Jones career went into decline. In the Sixties she made only three films. She made only one in the Seventies, her last film appearance in The Towering Inferno.

While Jennifer Jones did not make a huge number of movies when compared to other actors, Despite this, she had a career which many actors would envy. It was not simply that she was nominated for a total of eight Oscars, but she appeared in some truly classic films. The Song of Bernadette, Portrait of Jennie, and Beat the Devil, among other movies, will remembered for years. While her career may have been shorter than other actors, Jennifer Jones had talent far exceeding most other actors as well. She will not be forgotten.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Top Twenty Actors

For quite some time, or so I have been told, there was a tag going around in which individuals were asked to name their top twenty actors. The lovely Kate Gabrielle recently posted her list on her blog Silents and Talkies and left the tag open to anyone who "want to jump on the bandwagon." Back in March, Millie posted her list of her top twenty actors on her blog, ClassicForever and asked anyone who hadn't been tagged to consider themselves tagged. Since I have apparently been tagged twice, I thought I would go ahead and present you with my list of my twenty favourite actors of all time. Here I must say I limited the list to movie stars, excluding such actors as Patrick McGoohan, Patrick Macnee, and Ricardo Montalban, whose fame primarily stems from television.

Note: For those of you who are wondering, I intend to eulogise the great Jennifer Jones, who died today at the age of 90, tomorrow. I am rather tired from work at the moment and I want to be in shape to give her the eulogy she so richly deserves.

1. Steve McQueen

Favourite Roles: The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Bullitt

2. Sir Christopher Lee

Favourite Roles: Dracula (1958), The Wicker Man

3. Toshiro Mifune
Favourite Roles: Seven Samurai, The Samurai Trilogy

4. Marcello Mastroianni

Favourite Roles: La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2

5. Boris Karloff

Favourite Roles: Bride of Frankenstein, The Black Cat

6. Humphrey Bogart

Favourite Roles: The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Big Sleep

7. Terence Stamp

Favourite Roles: The Collector, Superman II

8. Clark Gable

Favourite Roles: It Happened One Night, Gone with the Wind

9. Jack Lemmon

Favourite Roles: The Apartment, How to Murder Your Wife

10. Cary Grant

Favourite Roles: Arsenic and Old Lace, North by Northwest

11. Gary Cooper

Favourite Roles: Meet John Doe, High Noon

12. Errol Flynn

Favourite Roles: The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk

13. Gene Kelly

Favourite Roles: An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain (sorry, girls, I just had to use a picture of him with Cyd...)

14. Randolph Scott

Favourite Roles: The Last of the Mohicans, Ride the High Country

15. Sir Dirk Bogarde

Favourite Roles: Hot Enough for June, The Mind Benders, The "Doctor" Series

16. Jimmy Stewart

Favourite Roles: It's a Wonderful Life, Harvey

17. Leslie Howard

Favourite Roles: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Pygmalion

18. Tyrone Power

Favourite Roles: The Mark of Zorro, The Black Swan

19. Vincent Price

Favourite Roles: Laura, The Abominable Dr. Phibes

20. John Wayne

Favourite Roles: McClintock!, True Grit

Here I must state that absolutely no bias played a role in my choices. It is entirely a coincidence that two of the actors are named "Terence" and two are from Missouri.... If you haven't done this list yet, then consider yourself tagged.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lillie Langtry

Almost since the advent of film, motion pictures have propelled actors into dizzying heights of fame. Stars from eighty years ago are still remembered today, even though their last films may have been made in the Twenties. Among the most famous actresses in history, however, only made one movie. Her fame rested entirely on her work on stage, the many paintings and photographs of her, as well as her sometimes scandalous private life. She was Lillie Langtry, the "Jersey Lily."

Lillie was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton in Jersey, Channel Islands on October 13, 1853. Her father was Reverend William Corbet le Breton, the Dean of Jersey. Her mother, Emile, was well known for her beauty. Lillie was the only daughter in a household full of six brothers. As a result she was very much a tomboy, riding horses bareback and joining in with her brothers in their shenanigans. It also instilled in her an independent streak she maintained for her whole life. Indeed, she proved far too much for her French governess to handle and as a result was educated by her brothers' tutor. She was nicknamed "Lillie," short for Emilie, while still young. By her teens she was already acknowledged as the most beautiful girl in Jersey.

It was in 1874 that she married Irish landowner Edward Langtry, the brother in law of her brother William. She eventually persuaded Langtry to take her to London. It was when the couple was invited to the home of one of her father's friends, the 7th Viscount Ranelagh, that her beauty was first noticed in London. Before the end of the evening artist Frank Miles had already sketched her; the sketches would appear on a series of very popular postcards. Her intelligence and beauty earned Lillie invitations to many other soirées and parties. She soon became the toast of London.

She also became very popular as an artist's model. In 1878 Sir John Everett Millais painted her portrait, entitled A Jersey Lily (even though in the painting Lillie is actually holding a Guernsey lily, as no Jersey lilies were available). She also sat for architect and artist Sir Edward Poynter and appeared in works by painter and designer Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Talk of Lillie's already legendary beauty eventually reached the ears of Albert Edward the Prince of Wales. In 1877 the Prince arranged a dinner party at home to which Lillie was invited. Lillie was seated beside the Prince, while Edward Langtry was seated at the other end of the table. Like many men of the time, Prince Albert was enchanted by Lillie. It was not long before she became his mistress. So enamoured of Lillie was the Prince, that he even started work on the Red House (now the Langtry Manor Hotel) in Bournemouth, Dorsetas their own private love nest. He even let Lillie design it. The affair would not last, and ended in 1880. Reasons given for the end of Lillie's affair with the Prince of Wales vary. According to one report, Lillie incurred the Prince's ire when she wore the same outfit as him to a fancy dress party and Lillie, headstrong as ever, refused to apologise. Other reports claim that Lillie's place in Prince Albert's heart had been taken by actress Sarah Bernhardt, who had arrived in London in 1879. Regardless, the affair was over by 1880.

It was that same year that it became apparent that Edward Langtry was deep in debt, although it is unclear if he was actually bankrupt. Regardless, Lillie soon realised she needed a means of supporting herself. With only a few options open to women at the time, Lillie entered the theatre at the suggestion of Oscar Wilde. It was iin December 1881 that she made her debut in the play She Stoops to Conquer. Although reviews of Lillie's acting were often mixed at best, it brought her even more fame. Indeed, such was Lillie's fame that she became of the first actresses, perhaps the first, to make commercial endorsements. Lillie endorsed products ranging from Pears soap to American Eagle tobacco.

It was in 1885 that Lillie Langtry toured with her own company, becoming famous in the United States as she was in the United Kingdom. Men were just as enchanted with her in the States as they had been in Britain. Among her fans was Judge Roy Bean. Not only did he name his saloon "the Jersey Lily" in her honour, but he also named the town of Langtry, Texas in her honour as well. After the judge's death, Lillie would visit the town named for her. It was in 1887 that Lillie became an American citizen. A year later she divorced Edward Langtry. In the States she would become involved in both a winery and thoroughbred horse racing. She would return to the London stage in 1897. In 1901 she retired from the stage, only to appear on vaudeville later. In 1916 she made her only film appearance.

Lillie Langtry died in Monaco on February 12, 1929 at the age of 75. She was buried in the graveyard of the church where her father had been rector, St. Saviour's Church in Jersey.

Lillie would ultimately prove to have the greatest influence on pop culture of any actress of her era. It is widely believe that the character of Irene Adler, the one person to best Sherlock Holmes, was based on her. She has appeared as a character in several movies, including The Westerner (1940), The Trials of Oscar Wilde, and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (where she was played by Ava Gardner). She has also appeared on television programmes, including episodes of Edward the Seventh and Oscar. In 1978 London Weekend Television dramatised her life in the mini-series Lillie. She also appeared as a character in the Western novel Slocum and the Jersey Lily by Jake Logan and the Victorian novel Death at Epsom Downs by Robin Paige.

It also seems fairly clear that the song "Pictures of Lily" by The Who was written for her. In the book Lyrics by Rikki Rooksby, Pete Townshend claimed that the song was inspired by a postcard of an old Vaudeville star he referred to as Lily Bayliss, that a girlfriend had hung on his wall. That having been said, there was no Vaudeville star named Lily Bayliss, only theatre manager Lilian Bayliss, whose looks would not be likely to inspire a song about pin up pictures. It seems more more likely that the "Lily" of the song is Lillie Langtry, particularly given the lyric "She's been dead since 1929." Certainly, the young man of the song would not be the first to become enamoured by pictures of Lillie.

Lillie Langtry is still well known today, when many actresses of her time are forgotten. She pioneered celebrity commercial endorsements, and was a woman who made her own way at a time when few women did. Celebrated for her beauty, she created the sort of hysteria that only a few movie stars and rock stars would later. That she did so is a tribute not simply to her beauty, but her intelligence and independence as well.