Friday, June 08, 2007
façade: Ida, artist & pioneering feminist
Ida Lupino, who starred with Humphrey Bogart in "High Sierra" and went on to become one of Hollywood's first woman directors, is being honored all this month on
which will air her groundbreaking directorial efforts, in addition to films showcasing her various starring roles. Today, we pay our own tribute to her. For another opinion of her wonderufl work, check out critic Carrie Rickey's astute piece which ran in tandem with her profile of Turner's current gay-film festival in the June 7th edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
When it came to starring roles, Ida Lupino was always third in line. But if she generally lived in the shadow of Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, getting the roles that those two tossed aside, that's because Lupino was a genuinely chameleonic presence in movies, her "look" shifting from film to film, sometimes from scene to scene.
Lupino often referred to herself as the "poor man's Bette Davis," an observation she made without the intention of degrading either herself or Davis: She loved Bette Davis - and for that matter, Hopkins, who at the time was quite celebrated, but whose star unjustly diminished as time went on.
But the fact is, Lupino was better than either one - less of a live-wire than Hopkins; less skittish and more realistic, and less of a caricature than Davis. Ida Lupino was Bette Davis without that intimidating jawline and imperious tone - and without the ego. But she had the same edge, a wary, caged quality, as well as a sensual, sad-eyed yearning and soulfulness that made her one of the more inviting heroines of cinema's golden age, the 1930s and '40s.
Lupino had a delicacy that her peers lacked, and she complemented this quality with the sparest of physical gestures.
She was also something of a contradiction: She had a distinctive throaty voice that suited her to roles as hardened, ambitious women; and yet she also had a lithe, slender figure, porcelain skin and huge, gumdrop eyes that made her perfect for the movies' symbolic "good girl."
Lupino played both, sometimes within the context of the same movie, actively representing a break from Hollywood's notions of what women on screen should be(i.e., either whores or madonnas). If Davis was responsible for creating a new screen type – the neurotic, threatened modern woman - Lupino should be credited for refining it, bringing a little shading, nuance and subtlety to it.
If she wasn't given her due, if she didn't quite make it to the star level of Davis, it's because Ida Lupino didn't have the kind of star temperament that called attention to whatever she did. She simply did it.
Her failure to grandstand certainly affected her acting career, which was relatively unrewarding for her even when, finally, the good roles in the good films started to come her way. Lupino had struggled through a series of colorless roles in B movies, graduated to A films - becoming the queen of film noir and an established star - and then abandoned it for behind-the-scenes work: She became the only woman director of the postwar period.
She was only 15 when she made her film debut - in Alan Dwan's "Her First Affair" of 1933 - and that was accidental. Lupino got the role for which her mother, British actress Connie Emerald, had auditioned. Lupino, who was born in London on Feb. 4, 1918, was the daughter of Emerald and revue-and-film comedian Stanley Lupino.
After she landed the "First Affair" role, Lupino was imported to America by Paramount to play the title role in its all-star "Alice in Wonderland" feature.
Once she arrived in Hollywood, however, Lupino was deemed "too sophisticated" for the role (it went to Charlotte Henry) and spent her first seven years there giving unusually strong performances in some minor movies, before landing her breakthrough role in William Wellman's "The Light That Failed" (1940), in which she played a cockney and stole the film from Ronald Coleman.
In 1943, after playing a succession of roles with quiet power in Raoul Walsh's "They Drive by Night" (1940) and "High Sierra" (1941) and Charles Vidor's Gothic "Ladies in Retirement" (also '41), she landed her first "star vehicle," Vincent Sherman's "The Hard Way," winning the best actress award that year from the New York Film Critics Circle.
Lupino worked regularly with the industry's noir-obsessed mavericks before applying what she learned from them on her own moody films.
There were some sparkling comedies, too - such as Sherman's delightful home-front fable, "Pillow to Post" (1945) - but it was her work in the darker films which enriched the industry, starting with "Never Fear" in 1950, the first film that she made for a small company, The Filmmakers, that Lupino had formed in 1948 with her then-husband, Collier Young.
The Filmmakers specialized in low-budget, "social issue" movies and those by Lupino often dealt with women's issues, although the film that is considered her finest as a director, "The Hitch-Hiker" (1953), has no women in it at all.
In "Never Fear," Lupino directed her favorite actress, Sally Forrest, in a standard tale about a dancer who contracts polio. What sets it apart is the way Lupino directed Forrest, giving her character motivations that are curiously skewed (if not downright screwy). "The Bigamist" (1953), meanwhile, is a feminist film on divorce, shrewdly told from the man's point of view, with Lupino curiously casting herself as the "other woman." (Joan Fontaine plays the wife; Edmund O'Brien, the straying husband.)
In the '50s, Lupino did extensive work on TV, which included acting in a TV series with her third husband, the late Howard Duff, titled "Mr. Adams and Eve." She directed Roz Russell in the adorable girls' school comedy, "The Trouble With Angels" (1966), and in 1972, made a memorable return to films in Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner," playing the same kind of woman, only older now, that she played so well 30 years before.
The movies discovered Ida Lupino too late - and in more ways than one. Those good roles should have come sooner and they should have made her a brighter star than she was. But she was better than a star. She was an artist and a professional. She was also a no-nonsense feminist before either Hollywood or the world knew what that really was.
(Artwork: The many faces of the great Ida Lupino - being honored this month on Turner Classics - including a shot of her with Robert Preston in one of last film roles in Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner" in 1972)
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Posted by joe baltake at 8:12 AM