August 26, 2016

Famous Blondes, From Monroe and Novak To Bardot And Basinger



Blonde Venus. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend. Platinum Blonde. Legally Blonde. Incendiary Blonde.(Betty Hutton).

And — just for something different — The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe

The titles speak volumes. In cinema — not to mention fairytale, myth, art, literature, politics and the realm of popular culture in general — the image of the blonde or the fair-haired woman has carried a strong symbolic charge. It can be identified with innocence and purity but also with artifice and duplicity. It can suggest bounty, dazzle and allure, the implication that all that glisters is not necessarily gold. It can convey a heightened sense of spectacle. It is almost always associated with a notion of the feminine. The figure of the blonde is one of Hollywood’s most potent emblems and exports, and it has had an influence on other movie cultures over the years.

The Alliance Francaise Classic Film Festival has a short program dedicated to the figure of the blonde in French cinema. It features a handful of films from the 1950s to the 70s, beginning with a classic whose title highlights its subject: Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or (1952), or Golden Helmet, a movie that emphasises the sensuous blonde coiffure of actress Simone Signoret.

She illuminates Becker’s handsome black-and-white film, set in low-life Paris at the end of the 19th century. Signoret is Marie, nicknamed Casque d’Or, who falls for a reformed criminal, with tragic consequences. In the movie, her celebrated blondeness has a formal and an informal aspect. At a dance when the pair meet, her hair is piled high on top of her head; she’s a sensuous, confident beauty in a social world of display. Yet when the lovers are together in the countryside, during the brief time they have together, her helmet of hair is loosened, dishevelled, all artifice gone.

A decade after Casque d’Or, the new wave swept through French cinema; and one of its most influential films, Jean-Luc Godard’s remarkable first feature, Breathless (1960), is part of the festival. Its female lead, American actress Jean Seberg, has a blonde helmet of sorts, a sleek, androgynous crop.

 She had already cut her hair short for her movie debut in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan, and wore it the same way in the next film she made with him, Bonjour Tristesse (1958). For Hollywood, she had played French characters. In Breathless (which Godard dedicated to B-movie outfit Monogram Pictures), she is an American in Paris, a young woman who incarnates both naivete and duplicity — a fresh version of a familiar trope. 

In cinema, the figure of the blonde often appears alongside the contrasting figure of the brunette; Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, is probably the most engaging example. 


Blondeness changes meaning over time, however. In the love-triangle drama Red Dust (1932), for example, Jean Harlow is an easygoing platinum blonde with a chequered past, while Mary Astor is a ladylike brunette. In the 1953 remake, Mogambo, the brunette, played by Ava Gardner, is the woman with the fast reputation, while Grace Kelly is the embodiment of blonde refinement. Yet, in a classic piece of Hollywood casting, the actor playing the love interest is the same in both movies: Clark Gable. 



The blonde-brunette double act will feature at the festival with Viva Maria! (1965), a burlesque female buddy movie set in Central America at the turn of the 20th century. It gives us Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot as contrasting yet well-matched activist-anarchist showgirls who join a circus, invent the striptease and embrace revolution. 


And, of course, there’s Catherine Deneuve, the MVP of blondes, represented in the festival with a lesser-known film, Lovers Like Us (Le Sauvage, 1975).     


There might be blondes of greater celebrity: Monroe, Harlow, Bardot, for example. But Deneuve has longevity on her side, and an extraordinary catalogue of roles. 


In 2010, when the Cinematheque Francaise held an exhibition called Brune/Blonde: Female Hair in Art and Cinema, the catalogue featured an interview with Deneuve that was devoted to her thoughts about coiffure and make-up and the way her blonde hair functioned in her roles.

Her range was apparent from the outset. In Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), Jacques Demy’s exquisite and melancholy musical, she’s the embodiment of quotidian beauty and everyday longing. In Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), she’s a woman descending from panic into madness, in a film that plunges the viewer directly into her experience. In Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), she’s the icy bourgeois wife with a masochistic secret life.

Hollywood cinema, above all, has fostered and fetishised the figure of the blonde. Among directors, few are more associated with this impulse than Alfred Hitchcock. Deneuve could have been a Hitchcock blonde: they met and talked about doing a movie, a detective story that existed only as an outline.

The exemplary moment of blondeness in Hitchcock is without a doubt the scene in Vertigo (1958) in which Kim Novak, playing a brunette who has dyed her hair blonde at the behest of James Stewart’s character, presents herself for his inspection, then consents to an additional reconfiguring of her coiffure. Stewart is obsessed with recreating a lost love, in a situation whose implications he is unaware of; it’s a scene with multiple resonances of performance, impersonation, ambiguity, desire and haunting circularity.


Hitchcock’s blonde figures are more complex and varied, it must be said, than tradition has it: the cool command of Kelly is very different from the vulnerability and awkwardness of Tippi Hedren.



The history of Hollywood blondeness has twists and turns. For Ellen Tremper, author of I’m No Angel: The Blonde in Fiction and Film, “the blonde of the cinema of the 1930s, Mae West, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, and Jean Arthur, would change the American landscape and women’s place in it”. These 30s heroines, she says, have wit and intelligence; they are assertive, not passive figures of contemplation.

In the 40s, Veronica Lake became famous for a distinctive, off-kilter coiffure, blonde curls cascading over one eye. Although an engaging comedienne, she is best known for a trio of noir films in which she was paired with Alan Ladd. Decades later, her image resurfaced in LA Confidential (1997), in which Kim Basinger played a Lake doppelganger who works for a 50s callgirl ring that specialises in movie-star lookalikes. 


And, of course, there is Monroe, defining Hollywood blondeness, and to some degree transcending it by sheer effort of will. Her body of studio work is surprisingly confined: only once, in Clash by Night (1952), in which she portrays a cannery worker, did she play a character with an ordinary job. In her major roles she was always a variation on a gold-digger or a stereotypical “dumb blonde” — yet she managed to subvert the stereotyping or deepen its implications, no matter what the challenge was off-screen. 

In The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), on what was reportedly a chaotic and troubled set, she gives an effortlessly appealing performance in an unlikely period piece: it is her co-star, Laurence Olivier (also her director), who appears awkward and uncomfortable.

Monroe, one way or another, continues to leave her mark on the evocation of blondeness. 


In the 80s, Madonna did her best to own it, restaging Monroe’s Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend number, rifling through the Hollywood cultural dress-up box for a variety of shades and identities. Her video clip for Vogue, directed by David Fincher, explicitly raids both classic Hollywood portraiture and the vogueing phenomenon of the gay club. While her video clips ruled, her movies faltered, although she had made a promising start with Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), in which Rosanna Arquette is a bored suburban wife freed by indirect contact and identification with Madonna, loose cannon and girl on the run. 

On screen, Kathleen Turner began the 80s as a dark blonde throwback femme fatale in Body Heat (1981), while Romancing the Stone (1984) showed her as a heroine in the adventurous tradition of the 30s. By 1999, in The Virgin Suicides, she’s the oppressively anxious maternal presence in a movie revolving around female fragility and male obsession, with Kirsten Dunst, as her daughter (Lux, or “light”), an emblem of blonde unattainability.

And in the 80s Michelle Pfeiffer — recently name-checked in Bruno Mars’s Uptown Funk number, in which he invokes “that ice-cold Michelle Pfeiffer / That white gold” — has presented versions of blondeness, both cool and hot, that often have old Hollywood resonances.

She made an impact in Brian De Palma’s new take on Scarface (1983), as a gangster’s moll; in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) she was an escort turned lounge singer, both world-weary and glamorous; reviewer Roger Ebert compared her to Rita Hayworth in Gilda and Monroe and Some Like it Hot. She could be fragile, too. In The Age of Innocence (1993), Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel of New York society, Pfeiffer plays a woman enduring social isolation, a determined, self-aware figure: yet, in the end, she’s no match for Winona Ryder’s embodiment of quietly brutal brunette conformity.

Set against those actresses identified forever with their blondeness, there’s the occasional example of uncharacteristic blondeness when an actress is presented almost wilfully against type. The most potent example is Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1947); her husband, director and co-star, Orson Welles, decided not only to cut her long hair but also to change it from red to bleached blonde. Producer Harry Cohn was reportedly apoplectic. 


Producers were also none too happy with director Wong Kar-wai when, in Chungking Express (1994), he made one of his stars, Brigitte Lin, almost unrecognisable in a curly blonde wig. She was playing an enigmatic woman caught up in a drug deal gone wrong; it was the director’s reference to the figure of Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’s Gloria (1980). 

If blondeness is almost always gendered feminine — the extra “e” a giveaway — there is a space in popular culture for the male blond, although a far more limited one. Few male actors have made it part of their identity. 

Golden boys are rarely constructed as blond, and the assistance they are given by the hairdresser is much more low-key, colour-coded “light-brown” or “sandy”. Rare exceptions, perhaps: Peter O’Toole and Jean Marais. O’Toole in particular, over the course of a long and varied career, could present an image of male beauty without seeming to be intimidated by the prospect. 


In general, when an actor is given noticeably blond hair, it’s a pointed statement — it often signifies difference, extremity, sexual ambiguity. It can confer glamour, often with a homoerotic aura. 

When Terence Stamp made his feature debut in Billy Budd (1962), his black hair was dyed blond, signifying virtuous blondeness but also iconic presence, desirability. Clive Owen’s breakthrough role in Croupier (1998), as a blocked writer turned casino employee, a character is in the process of moral transition: he has platinum blond hair that he dyes back to its natural black, a move that represents the assumption of a different identity.

In My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), a cross-cultural gay love story that is also a tale of Margaret Thatcher’s London, Daniel Day-Lewis is Johnny, a street punk who sports a dark quiff of hair with a peroxide skunk-streak through the middle — his hairstyle singles him out, yet shows him as a divided soul. Years later, Ryan Gosling went platinum for The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), in which he plays a motorcycle stuntman who gets caught up in dramas of crime, fatherhood, identity and privilege.

Was the 80s the height of blondeness? Does the image of the blonde actress have the same potency these days? It has always had a troubling connection to the notion of whiteness and racial stereotyping. Yet singer Beyonce, always a shrewd reader of culture, has found a way to subvert expectations and constraints, embracing and extending blonde meaning.

Actresses are less invested in directly embodying the image, less identified with it, more able to play with it, on and off the screen. Yet there is still currency in the term, the ideal. One manifestation is Frank Ocean’s new, long-awaited album, which is called Blonde (or Blond, depending on the territory). 

And David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) has just been anointed as the film of the century so far in a BBC international critics’ poll. Starring Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring, it’s a film fascinated by the play of identity, by the endless enigma of Hollywood and representation — exemplified by the distinct yet connected figures of the blonde and the brunette.

Les Blondes runs in Sydney from August 26 to 28 and September 2 to 4; Canberra and Brisbane from September 2 to 4; Perth from October 13 to 16; and Melbourne from November 4 to 6.

By Philippa Hawker

With many thanks to The Australian
Picture credit Peter O'Toole: Howling Antiquity. 

Marilyn Monroe's 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President' Dress Sells for $4.8 Million

George Hurrell: Stars of the Silver Screen Immortalized By Master of the Hollywood Glamor Photo 

Daniel Day-Lewis Receives A Knighthood 

Frank Sinatra: 100 Years of Great Music - December 12th

Oscar Winners 2016: The Full List

How Sergio Leone’s Westerns Changed Cinema

Top 10 Movie Twists of All Time

Joni Mitchell: Why She Blocked Taylor Swift For Biopic Role 

Burt Bacharach Brings Back The Hits: From Marlene Dietrich to Glastonbury

Rick Nelson Validated

How Los Angeles and Hollywood Took Rock ‘N’ Roll Around The World

Rock Around the Clock: B-side Find Accidentally Launched Rock Anthem 

Tina Turner: What’s Age Got To Do With It? 

Sylvester Stallone: Not Feeling Old!

Hedy Lamarr - Beauty And Brains in Abundance

Charlie Chaplin: The Birth Of The Tramp

Carlos Gardel And The Tango In Movies 

"Rush" - An Under-rated Ron Howard Movie

Audrey Hepburn Quotes

John Lennon Born 75 Years Ago Today 

From New York to Las Vegas: How the Rat Pack Influenced Modern American Culture

A Look at a Legend: Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor Quotes

Top 10 Best Actress Oscar Winners Ever? 

10 Historically Inaccurate Movies

Some Like It Hot - Still!

Robert Mitchum: Film Noir Legend 

Clint Eastwood - A True "Renaissance Man" - Updated

John Wayne 7th Most Popular Star - Still!

How Marlon Brando Almost Missed His Defining Role

Top 10 Best Actress Oscar Winners Ever?

The Book Every Movie Lover Should Own:David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Hollywood's 100 Favorite Films

Paul Newman - Hollywood Legend 

Rita Hayworth - The Dancing Queen

Orry-Kelly:The untold story Of A Hollywood legend - "Women He's Undressed" Review

Top 10 Movie Sets Ever Built

A Look at a Legend: Rita Hayworth

The Importance of Costume in Films: Some Iconic Images of our Culture

A Look at a Legend: James Dean

Dolly Parton: A Biography Movie And A Time Capsule For Her 100th Birthday

Maggie Smith: Michael Coveney’s Biography

The Best Movies of 2015

Sophia Loren Quotes 

Michael Douglas: The Hemsworth Brothers And Hugh Jackman Are Hollywood Gold 

After Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, The Hemsworths, Where Are The Men Of The Movies? 

Alfred Hitchcock: Mysteries Of The Master Of Suspense

How Groucho Marx Invented Modern Comedy

Marilyn Monroe: Fashioning The Myth And The Reality

Loretta Lynn

Gregory Peck: Hollywood Legend 

A History Of Mick Jagger On Film

Florence Foster Jenkins: Meryl Streep's Latest Biopic

Citizen Kane: Orson Welles’s Masterpiece, As A 1941 NYT Critic Saw It

"The Man Who Knew Infinity" Review - Jeremy Irons And Dev Patel

New Book: Mom In The Movies By Richard Corliss

The 100 Greatest American Films

Loving Vincent: The World's First Fully Painted Film

The Lasting Legacy Of The Good, The Bad And the Ugly

Are These The Top 10 Songs Named After Famous People?

Dean Martin: 99 Years Of His Music and Movies

Judy Garland: Happy Birthday!

Marilyn Monroe: Her Secret Diary

The Rolling Stones: A New Movie About The Making of 'Exile on Main Street'

 Jennifer Saunders And Joanna Lumley Return In Absolutely Fabulous The Movie 

Biopics Now Focus On Key Moments Rather Than A Whole Life 

Cilla Black's Biography On TV