Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Phil Stern RIP

Phil Stern photographed by Brett Ratner in 2005
Phil Stern  by Brett Ratner, 2005

Phil Stern: the photographer who humanised Hollywood
The ex-war photographer used his charm to gain access to stars like James Dean and Frank Sinatra, then take shots that revealed the reality beneath the image

Andrew Gumbel
Monday 15 December 2014

If it hadn’t been for his razor-sharp reflexes, his stock-in-trade as one of the most talented and enduring photographers of Hollywood’s golden age, Phil Stern might have gone down in history as the man who killed James Dean.

In the spring of 1955, the two almost collided on a corner of Sunset Boulevard near the Chateau Marmont hotel. Stern was in his car, delivering negatives to Life magazine. Dean was on his motorbike, blithely crashing through a red light.

“I called him every four-letter expletive I could think of, and a few five-letter and six-letter ones too,” Stern recalled half a century later.

He didn’t care who he was talking to. Stern might have been known for his endearingly self-deprecating humour, but he was also a no-nonsense New Yorker who’d almost died in the second world war and he wasn’t about to kowtow to anyone, no matter how famous, young or beautiful. Dean, like so many other stars of his generation, clearly loved being treated like an ordinary human being, and took Stern out to breakfast at Schwab’s drugstore. And so a friendship – or, at least, an extraordinarily productive professional association – was born.

Stern, who died on Sunday at the age of 95, liked to call himself a “humble paparazzo”, but his real skill was to cut his subjects down to size as much as himself. In his images, his celebrity subjects weren’t untouchable icons but human beings caught in odd, goofy, telling moments: Dean poking his hair and his electric blue eyes out of a black polo-neck sweater, Frank Sinatra lighting a cigar for John F Kennedy at his inauguration ball, John Wayne in chequered hot pants in Acapulco.

These were shots the celebrities themselves cherished and loved. And as Stern got older, increasingly hampered by emphysema and the oxygen tank he had to carry with him, he’d get knocks on his door from Madonna or Michael Jackson asking for images from a bygone era. He lived in a modest townhouse next to Paramount Studios, and his visitors would walk in on lifesize cardboard cut-outs of Dean, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr and Marlon Brando, who he referred to as his houseguests.

Like Hollywood at its best, Stern’s work was a felicitous mix of art and commerce. He knew his art history and had an unerring feeling for the humanity of his subjects, but he was also keenly aware of business opportunities when they arose and never hesitated to frame his shots differently if, say, it meant a chance at a double spread in a magazine instead of just a single-page feature. He vowed early in life not to suffer like his father, who’d been a Willy Loman-like travelling salesman, and was proud of using his back catalogue to put his four children through college and buy them houses.

Hollywood was not his only subject. Some of his most haunting work is from his time fighting the Nazis in North Africa and Sicily: shots of his fellow soldiers marching past a graveyard, where many of them would soon lie, or praying by candlelight, or sitting huddled over a map.

When he returned from the war, he combined magazine work with regular stints as a stills photographer on the set of Hollywood movies. Unlike today’s paparazzi, Stern didn’t have to ambush his subjects or sneak up on them with long lenses. He won them over until they were glad to provide him all the access he wanted.

His charm and wicked humour were still fully intact when I met him in 2005. He had just, improbably, reassembled a collection of James Dean shots he’d long believed to be lost – shots of Dean, the midwesterner, eating apple pie with his friends in a modest Hollywood cafe – and used his hard-nosed negotiating skills to reclaim ownership of them.

He was a gracious host who didn’t stop cracking jokes, even when the tubes of his oxygen machine got tangled in the furniture and almost felled him. “You’re going to see a headline in tomorrow’s paper,” he said, “‘Renowned Photographer Dies Tripping On His Oxygen Tank’.”

Marlon Brando during the filming of The Wild One, 1954
Marlon Brando, 1954

Marilyn Monroe at a Children's benefit at the Shrine Auditorium, 1953
Marilyn Monroe, 1953

James Dean, 1955
James Dean, 1955

Charles Heston, Los Angeles, late 1940s
Charlton Heston, late 1940s

Frank Sinatra and JFK at the Gala, 1961
Frank Sinatra and JFK, 1961

Audrey Hepburn with Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, early 1950s
Audrey Hepburn with Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, early 1950s

Sammy Davis, Jr. dancing on a Hollywood rooftop, 1947
Sammy Davis Jr, 1947

Humphrey Bogart on the set of Blood Alley, 1955
Humphrey Bogart, 1955

John Wayne on the set of War Wagon , Mexico 1967
John Wayne, 1959

The Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford, 1954.
Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, 1954

James Dean, March 1955
James Dean, 1955

Marlon Brando at the Academy Awards, 1955.
Marlon Brando, 1955

Billie Holiday, early 1950s.
Billie Holliday, early 1950s

John Garfield during filming of <i>Body and Soul</i>, 1947.
John Garfield, 1947

Black and White Photography Phil Stern 5
Sophia Loren, 1957

Phil Stern: Anita Ekberg, 1955
Anita Ekberg, 1955

James Dean and Dennis Stock, 1955

James Stewart, 1966

Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Frank Sinatra, 1954

Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie, 1953

Rita Moreno, 1961

Elizabeth Taylor, 1954

Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday, 1949

reFramed: In conversation with Phil Stern

Barbara Davidson
28| April 2014

Phil Stern’s career in photography began early on. As a high school student growing up in New York, Stern swept floors in a Canal Street photo studio while working nights taking pictures for the notoriously noir Police Gazette.

Stern enlisted in the Army in 1942 and joined the ranks of the elite Darby’s Rangers as a combat photographer. He was well known among his war colleagues for putting himself front and center as he documented battles in North Africa and Sicily, Italy. The credit stamp “Photo by PHIL STERN,” which ran alongside his images in the armed forces newspaper Stars and Stripes, became synonymous with a truly genuine image taken under fire by a daring young photographer.

Wounded in action at the Battle of El Guettar in Tunisia, Phil Stern was awarded a Purple Heart. After returning home to Los Angeles, he was assigned to cover the homecoming of the Darby’s Rangers for Life magazine, which helped usher in his second career, as a Hollywood documentary photographer. Stern began working for Look, Life and Collier’s to chronicle what would become a shared American history.

Stern’s straightforward approach and charming demeanor earned him all-access to President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala, studio mogul Sam Goldwyn’s inner sanctum, on-set lunches with Frank Sinatra, and holidays in Acapulco with John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Stern photographed on over 100 movie sets, including the legendary films “Citizen Kane,” “A Star Is Born,” “The Wild Ones,” “Guys and Dolls” and “West Side Story.” Stern also became a fixture at studio sessions with Jazz superstars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum and Dizzy Gillespie, and shot more than 60 album covers.

Q: How did you get your start in photography?

A: I started photography when I was 12 years old. The reason I started is my mother found an advertisement in a New York newspaper by Eastman Kodak. They offered any 12-year-old child a free, brand-new Kodak camera. Those were box cameras. Of course, Eastman Kodak had an agenda here. They gave away free cameras, God knows how many, thousands of them, and the only place you could get film at that time was from Eastman Kodak. The sales of films, of course, skyrocketed after giving away these cameras.

I got one of those cameras, and I was fascinated with the images that it made. My God, I thought, this was magic. At that time I also devoured magazines. That was the period when the picture magazine field was born, devised, or whatever. Look magazine came about. Life magazine came about. I was fascinated with the imagery in those things. It wasn’t difficult to come to the point where I wanted to make pictures like these that I saw in magazines.

I also, at the same time, had notions of becoming an artist. I would make paintings and stun the world with imagery. That came to naught. I had the imagination, but I did not have the ability to transform that onto a surface, a canvas or watercolor paper.

Phil Stern with Joan Crawford

Q: How did you go from being a kid who loved photography magazines to actually working for those same magazines?

A: At a point in time, I traversed that distance from being enamored with the camera and the publications to the point where I did it myself. I got a job when I was 15 or 16. I was in high school, and I went to school in the mornings. In the afternoons I would work as an assistant clean-up person in a photo lab in New York City. In photography, you have to keep dust and dirt away from your film negatives. I cleaned the walls and surfaces of the photo darkroom. I also mixed chemicals. It worked out pretty well.

I also ferreted about looking for work after school beyond the photo lab. Before I worked seriously for high-level magazines, I actually got assignments from publications like Police Gazette, with pictures of criminals, prostitutes and different events that would suit the taste of the editor who had a readership that required a certain kind of pictures.

In the early ’40s, I worked on assignments for Life magazine – miscellaneous things, personalities, events, etc. – as well as for Look magazine and Collier’s, etc. Then, sadly, the war began.

Q: How did you become a war photographer?

A: The United States had the draft back then. If you didn’t enlist and you were young and healthy, you’d be drafted. There was no escape from that, unless you were very sick or debilitated physically. I went from Hollywood into the Army, to the training station in Long Island, N.Y., and from there on troop ships to England, and from England, after training, to the invasion of North Africa, Tunisia.

American troops enter Comiso, Sicily, July, 1943

I was put on the staff of Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, after I was wounded. My right arm was incapacitated because the nerve that operates the right arm, in my upper neck, was hit by shell fragments. It severed the nerve that operates my right arm and also my right hand at the wrist. Shrapnel had also lacerated the tendons that work each of the fingers. The army field hospital in North Africa – in Morocco – had a huge medical facility for wounded soldiers. They fixed me up there. They did nerve surgery and fixed the right arm. It worked fine but limited. They also retied the tendons that worked my hand. As a result, my right hand, after a lot of therapy, actually became more dexterous than the left hand. After I was wounded, I was awarded the Purple Heart medal, which was common among troops who got wounded. The Army was trying to decide what to do with me beyond that.

I was known in the Army, it was on record, that I was a photographer. They said to me, “We would like you to stay in the Army. You can stay and do limited duty.” Limited duty turned out to be Stars and Stripes. Commanders said there was an invasion coming up with Sicily and they would give me access to anything I wanted. I didn’t have to go – I chose to do it. I thought it would be very exciting. A lot of it, my war experience, I don’t particularly care to dwell on, because some of it was pretty ugly.

Darbys Rangers plot their mission for the invasion of North Africa, 1942

Q: Do you think your war experience impressed the Hollywood stars and helped you get access?

A: I’m sure that it impressed some of the Hollywood stars. It very well might have helped me get access. I don’t really know for sure, because some of them wanted publicity so bad that you didn’t have to have a Purple Heart for that. All you had to have was an expensive camera. That’s about it. Many of the Hollywood stars felt comfortable with me hovering around. I took advantage of that wherever I had the opportunity to photograph them. I don’t know what made them felt comfortable with me, but they were, and I took advantage of that.

Q: How did you meet James Dean?

A: In 1955, I was driving early in the morning on Sunset Boulevard, going to Life’s editorial office, which was on the Sunset Strip. And in order to get there, I had to pass Laurel Canyon. At Laurel Canyon, there was a red light for the cross traffic. And a crazy bastard on a motorcycle came whizzing right through the red light on the road. And I came within a few inches of smashing him. Looking back at it, I almost killed him. But I skidded on the brakes. He did too, and it worked out. I immediately recognized him. I called him every expletive I could think of. However, it all ended up with us going to the opposite side of the street, where they had that famous Schwab’s drug store. We had coffee together. However, it occurred to me that it would have been a good career move if I had killed him because I’d be famous all over the world for having killed James Dean.

My photograph of James Dean with his sweater covering his face, except for his eyes, has had a lot of traffic, editorially. It has been used for magazine covers, book covers, advertisements. It’s helped make me semi-rich. I had nothing to do with the making of that image. I did not make it. He made it. That was his whimsical statement of his own volition, and I’m thankful for it. I did not have enough imagination to think of him doing that, but he did. I just pushed the button. He was a self-destructive character, I believe. He did crazy things that could kill him, and one did. That was completely wild, what he did. What killed him was racing on a curved road where he couldn’t see. He just kept going and not knowing that another car was coming toward him.

Phil Stern on James Dean’s Triumph motorcycle.

Q: What was it like to photograph Marilyn Monroe?

A: Photographing Marilyn Monroe was a catch as catch can for me. I was like a paparazzi. At no time did I have her on my terms. So I had to be especially careful and attentive, because one of the problems I had – which perhaps all photographers have – was to make photographs that were different than others. It’s a competitive thing because that was in my trade, my way of making a living and so on. It turned out that I did have a point of view that showed up in many of the pictures I made.

Q: What was Frank Sinatra like?

A: Frank Sinatra was the classic saint and sinner. He could be charming, generous, effusive. He could be a nasty, nasty man as well. He was comfortable with me around, and I took advantage of that. When you say I was a friend of his for 50 years, that’s true, but it wasn’t 24/7 friendship. I didn’t see him for years at one point. Every time I would see him again, I was still on his acceptable list.

Q: How did you come to photograph President Kennedy’s inauguration?

A: President Kennedy had a big supporter in Frank Sinatra. He was avid about raising funds, performing at events to raise money for the campaign and so on. So when Kennedy was elected, he appointed Sinatra to be the director of entertainment for the inaugural. Sinatra lined up some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Bette Davis, Sir Laurence Olivier, etc., etc. Knowing this, I took advantage. I was very opportunist in this matter. And it so happened I was working on a film Sinatra was making called “Devil at 4 o’ Clock” when the news broke internationally that John F. Kennedy was elected. On the set of this film at Columbia Studios, I got a little memo card, those three-by-five memo cards. And on it I wrote, “Dear Frank, congratulations. I hereby apply to be resident photographer of the event.” Gloria Lovell was his secretary and she did all the personal work that he needed to be done. She called me that evening and gave me the date of a chartered flight where he and all his friends, Bette Davis and all these other people, were flying. And she says, “You’re on,” at the Washington Hilton Hotel.

Q: Politically you were very different from John Wayne, so how did it come to pass that you two developed such a close friendship?

A: John Wayne was something else. He felt comfortable with me. He knew about my war record, because there was a lot of publicity about “Phil Stern, the War Hero,” and all that…. He asked for me on some of his films. There were times when I got rather intimate with him, and we got into political arguments. Several times, when we were both a little drunk, I would call him a “Neanderthal fascist.” He would call me a “bomb-throwing Bolshevik.” We both lived with it. We were, indeed, the odd couple. He had a black man cook for him. This man, all he knew how to do was cook steaks and chops. That’s all that John Wayne liked to eat, steak and chops, and he loved the way this guy cooked them.

I’m told my photograph of Wayne wearing shorts is a favorite in the gay community. They love it. You must understand that in the 1940s and 1950s wearing … what do you call those blue canvas sneakers? Espadrilles? Those espadrilles, and the leather purse, and the uncovered legs was the mode of the period. It had nothing to do with being gay. Anyway, at that time a lot of prints of that Wayne image were sold.

Q: Sophia Loren? Marlon Brando?

A: I don’t remember too much about Sophia Loren, except in Africa one time, we were in Libya on a film location. At one point, a scene required her taking a bath or a shower. She cried like a little girl who’d been spanked because the director wanted her to shave her armpits. European women did not shave their armpits. She did it, but she cried for about two days. [laughs] That’s all I remember about her.

Marlon Brando was a strange character for me. At the Academy Awards, where he got the Academy Award for “On the Waterfront,” they cordoned off an area at the theater where the awards were given for a photo shoot, to get Brando after he got the award. I was part of that, among many other photographers taking pictures of him. However, we had to wait for him to get to our area, where we’d photograph him. He came and he apologized. He said, “I’m sorry,” and he said to me, “They had a security line and they wouldn’t let people through. When I came, the security guard didn’t recognize me and I started to tell him, ‘I’m Marlon Brando, I’m Brando’…I couldn’t figure out how to say the lines without sounding imperious, or anything.” That I found to be amusing.

Q: What makes a good picture?

A: I wish I knew. I could keep taking more. I don’t really know, except to say what is the obvious. The photograph should say something. It should be readable at one glance. If you have to study a photograph, I don’t think it’s worth it. As I said earlier, the point of view is important. My point of view is that.

I wince a little at the term “artist” when it’s used to reference me. I do not see myself or equate photography with Rembrandt, Delacroix, Matisse, or any of those. I equate it differently. To me, a photograph is not made by an artist, but by an artisan. I don’t see myself as an artist, more as an artisan. In the same vein as when somebody sees a cabinet made of cherry wood, and will refer to it as, “Boy, that’s a great cabinet. It’s a work of art.” I don’t think it’s meant in the same sense as “The Last Supper.”

Photographer Phil Stern sits next to a full-size photograph he made of Louis Armstrong at his studio in Los Angeles. Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Q: What has photography taught you?

A: My answer to that is it’s not really what photography taught me, it’s what the great artists taught me. If you really were able to put together at a table a group of photographers and a group of great painters, and have them discuss this subject, I would say that the great painters, the Delacroixs, the Rembrandts, etc., taught us very much, about composition, about light, about the transposition of images. We photographers have learned an awful lot.

On the other hand, what could the great painters, the great artists, learn from us? I’ve searched and thought about this for a long time. The only thing I could come up with is what we could actually teach a great artist is how to make a reasonable color slide of their latest painting. We could do that pretty well, but I can’t think of anything else that we could teach them.

Making photographs, for me, has been a very fortunate phase of my life. I can’t make any complaints about it. All the things that I’ve done, the subject matter that I have been involved with, have been subjects that I personally like. The jazz scene, the Hollywood, the war, and those are mandatory to my needs as a photographer. I am very delighted with the life I’ve had.

Would I do anything differently if I had the opportunity? I would say yes on some things, but mostly no. I’ve done mostly what I’ve wanted to do. There are people I would like to have photographed, but never did, people like Charles Chaplin. I never met him, never photographed him. He’s one of the greatest entertainers that I admire. I’ve been around a long time, and going over material that I’ve done, I’ve concluded that I’ve taken an awful lot of [bad] pictures…. A little gem appears here, a little gem appears there, and I grasp at those little gems. I’m delighted to have them.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Brian Wilson and Friends at the Venetian Theatre, Las Vegas 2014 - review

Review: Brian Wilson and Friends (featuring Al Jardine, Nate Ruess, Blondie Chaplin and more) December 12, 2014 at The Venetian Theatre

Steve Matview15 December 2014

Does Brian Wilson really need an introduction? The Beach Boys founder is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the history of music and certainly one of my favorite songwriters. Way back before I discovered punk or even started grade school, I wore out cassette copies of the Beach Boys’ greatest hits, which I can attribute to my undying love of a good vocal harmony.

As my musical tastes expanded, I came to realize that Wilson hugely influenced some of my favorite bands, including The Ramones, The Queers, Teenage Bottlerocket and Bomb the Music Industry. So, I didn’t even hesitate when the opportunity came to finally see the man live, picking up tickets to see Wilson and friends at the old Phantom Theatre in the Venetian the instant they went on sale.

The show kicked off with “Our Prayer/Heroes and Villains” right into “Sloop John B.,” pretty much the best opening one-two punch I can imagine. These songs represent the pinnacle of Wilson’s work,SMiLE and Pet Sounds respectively. The energy in the room started unusually low during those first few minutes, depleted after a delayed start and a prolonged instructional session on how to act for the camera, as this show was being filmed for broadcast on PBS next year. Many in the audience were understandably frustrated, as compared to many “for broadcast” shows, tickets were not free.

But things turned around as soon as these songs were played, and the band sounded exquisite, hitting all the harmonies like the pros they are. I’m more accustomed to seeing a few guys playing in a bar, so it was pretty nuts seeing 15 different people on stage at once, all gelling together so well, even with special guests who were not a part of Wilson’s regular tour package.

Those guests were a big part of the show, which was billed as “Brian Wilson and Friends.” Wilson and Beach Boys co-founder Al Jardine brought out 1970s era Beach Boys members Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar to play songs like “Sail On, Sailor” and “Wild Honey,” while The Four Freshman’s Brian Eichenberger was brought out to sing lead on “She Knows Me Too Well.” Jazz Trumpeter and composer Mark Isham also joined the band during this time, lending his brass to instrumental “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder).” This portion of the show was affectionately referred to as the “deep cuts” segment and was a great slice of history.

Since Wilson was using the night to promote his upcoming album No Pier Pressure, one that features a bevy of modern pop stars taking the microphone, he had some of those singers on hand to perform the songs live. The initial announcement that he would be working with modern acts was met with mixed reaction online, but the guy who was willing to give up lead vocals on a perfect track like “God Only Knows” 50 years ago should probably be trusted to know who is best to sing his songs.

Sebu Simonian of indie pop duo Capital Cities came out and sang new song “Runaway Dancer,” an upbeat, dancey tune. I’m not familiar with Simonian’s band but I was enthralled with his confidence and happy go lucky stage presence. He really impressed me when it came time for his Beach Boys tune, one of my all-time favorite songs “Don’t Worry Baby.” Simonian really knows how to work a crowd, making his way to the edge of the stage to goad the audience into boogying a little harder, something that’s pretty hard not to do with the pepped up tempo of this live version. Sebu’s joy on stage was infectious – I can’t imagine anyone seeing his performance and not leaving with a face splitting grin.

But as great as Simonian’s performance was, it was former The Format and current fun. frontman Nate Ruess who shined brightest. Fans of Ruess are going to love “Saturday Night on Hollywood Boulevard,” a breezy track with indie pop leanings that reminds me a lot of Ruess tracks like “Oceans” and “All the Pretty Girls.” The song sounded great live but it was Ruess’ fantastic rendition of “God Only Knows” that really wowed the audience. He seemed understandably nervous (can you imagine the pressure of performing one of the best songs ever written a Game Gear’s length away from the man who wrote it?) but ended up nailing it, receiving a huge standing ovation at the end. He may not have had Sebu’s swagger, but he more than made up for it with pure vocal power. As someone who has followed Ruess’ work since the first Format album, it was surreal and awesome to see him on a show like this, and he seemed excited and humbled by the whole thing.

The guests appearances were great, but the biggest reactions of the night came from the regular set of hits. If people didn’t know that they should be dancing, those instructions came with “Dance Dance Dance” from 1964’s Today! letting you know three times (complete with projected images of mod dancers behind the band). The hits just kept coming, with the prerequisite cover of The Crystals’ “Then I Kissed Her” (introduced as Wilson’s favorite song by Jardine), Pet Sounds opener “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and Beach Boys staple “Good Vibrations,” a song that didn’t need the producer’s cue to get everyone to stand and sing along. Wilson’s songs have a timeless, fun quality that meant the people dancing also spanned several generations, all equally enthused by the performance.

The show was almost the complete personification of fun, though I really would have liked to hear a little more from the man himself between songs. Outside of a few minor introductions, Wilson was mostly content to let the music – and Al Jardine – speak for him (Jardine took on the role of announcer for the bulk of the night). The show’s ending after “Fun Fun Fun” was a bit abrupt, with Wilson being helped off stage immediately after the last note played off, the rest of the band bowed and things were done. But Wilson’s influence combined with the timeless quality of his songs probably means he’s said what he needs to say at this point and there’s nothing wrong with letting your songs do the talking, especially when they’re some of the all-time greats.

-Steven Matview


Our Prayer
Heroes and Villains
Sloop John B (Al Jardine and Brian Wilson lead vocal)
Dance, Dance, Dance
Then I Kissed Her (The Crystals cover) (Al Jardine lead vocal)
She Knows Me Too Well (Brian Eichenberger lead vocal)
Good Vibrations
This Beautiful Day
Runaway Dancer (Sebu Simonian lead vocal)
Don’t Worry Baby (Sebu Simonian lead vocal)
Wild Honey (Blondie Chaplin lead vocal)
Sail On, Sailor (Blondie Chaplin lead vocal)
Sail Away (Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and more lead vocal)
Don’t Talk (instrumental featuring Mark Isham on trumpet)
Half Moon Bay
The Right Time (Al Jardine lead vocal)
California Saga: California (Brian Wilson and Al Jardine lead vocal)
Wouldn’t It Be Nice (Al Jardine lead vocal)
Help Me, Rhonda (Al Jardine lead vocal)
Saturday Night on Hollywood Boulevard (Nate Ruess lead vocal)
Hold on Dear Brother (Blondie Chaplin and Nate Ruess lead vocals)
Darlin’ (Nate Ruess lead vocal)
God Only Knows (Nate Ruess lead vocal)
Pacific Coast Highway
Summer’s Gone
California Girls
All Summer Long
Barbara Ann (The Regents cover)
Surfin’ U.S.A.
Fun, Fun, Fun

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Kirk Douglas' favourite Kirk Douglas movies

I've Made About 90 Feature Films, but These Are the Ones I'm Proudest Of

Kirk Douglas
9 December 2104

Editor's note: For the release of Kirk Douglas' new book, Life Could Be Verse: Reflections on Love, Loss, and What Really Matters, HuffPost Entertainment asked the decorated actor to recall some of the fondest memories from his storied career. We sent Douglas a list of select films, and he graciously responded with a personal reflection on his work. Read on for what Douglas had to say of his 68 years in the business.

Over some 70 years, I made about 90 feature films, starting with The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946 and ending with It Runs in the Family in 2003 -- a wonderful experience, because I got to work with my son Michael, my grandson Cameron and my first wife, Diana Dill. I have forgotten most of them, and so has the public. However, I am proud of the ones I will tell you about, especially those I made through my own production company Bryna. They include Paths of Glory,Spartacus, Seven Days in May, and my favorite of all, Lonely Are the Brave. A few films are sentimental favorites that mark meaningful times in my off-screen life and milestones in my rise to stardom. Others are meaningful to me because, while entertaining the public, they also gave insight into serious issues. I will tell you my choices.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

Let's start with my first film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a film noir made at Paramount. You know, I never wanted to be anything but a New York stage actor, but that was a precarious career for a man with a young family. I was in a play called The Wind Is Ninety -- don't ask me what the title means -- when I got a visit backstage from an important Hollywood producer, Hal Wallis. My friend Lauren Bacall had urged him to see me when he was in New York because I had gotten good reviews. He offered me a job. I could not turn down a movie starring Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin. Besides, it was a better paycheck than I could get on Broadway. All across the country on the train, I memorized my part so I could hold my own with the seasoned film stars. I remember saying my lines perfectly during the first rehearsal. Pretty impressive, I thought, until I saw the way everyone was looking at me. I had learned Van Heflin's part instead of the role of the weak, alcoholic husband of Martha Ivers. How mortifying! My next humiliation was not far behind. The director told me to light a cigarette. I didn't smoke, but I obeyed. It made me dizzy and nauseous, and I ran to my dressing room to throw up. After the film wrapped, I went back to New York and got parts in a few more flops. So I became a film actor out of necessity, and soon I was working regularly in Hollywood -- as well as smoking four packs a day.

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Champion (1949)

Champion was a turning point in my young career. I had an opportunity to make a big Technicolor picture at MGM called The Great Sinner starring Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, and Lionel Barrymore. I turned it down to play Midge Kelly, a not-very-likeable boxer in a small independent film put together by young unknowns -- producer Stanley Kramer, writer Carl Foreman, and director Mark Robson. My agent was very unhappy. I was in pretty good shape, but I had never boxed. I didn't want them to use a body double, so I went into serious training with Mushy Callahan, an ex-welterweight champion. You know, it's hard to make a movie punch look real. In the scene where my opponent was to catch me with a faked uppercut as I bounced off the ropes, he actually knocked me out. Now that's movie realism! Champion got me a Best Actor nomination for an Oscar and made me a star. And that other film, The Great Sinner? It was a flop.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

To no one's surprise, I again played the self-serving bad guy in Billy Wilder's drama about a disgraced journalist trying to reinvent his big career in small-town Albuquerque. When a tunnel collapses outside a small town, he sees a big opportunity in his exclusive coverage of the man trapped below, convincing him to delay rescue for the sake of the headlines. My co-star was Jan Sterling, playing the the victim's scheming wife. In one scene I am supposed to choke her. Before the cameras rolled, I told Jan to let me know if I was being too rough. When she turned blue and went limp, I released her. "Why didn't you stop me?!" I demanded when she came to. "I couldn't," she rasped, "because you were choking me." Ace in the Hole, redubbed The Big Carnival in America, was not a hit at the time, but it became a cult favorite. I loved working with Billy, who became a good friend.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Wasn't I lucky that Clark Gable turned down the role, since it earned me my second Academy nomination? Lana Turner played my beautiful discovery. We shot at MGM with Vincente Minnelli directing. One day I had a chat with Francis X. Bushman, who had a small part. Bushman had been a major star in the silents and talkies, but he had just faded away. Now I learned why. At the height of his fame, he inadvertently offended the all-powerful Louis B. Mayer by keeping him waiting a few minutes. Mayer, in turn, banned him from MGM and blackballed him in the industry. This was his first time on the lot in 25 years. Bushman's story gave me some useful insight into the ruthless, selfish character I was playing -- still another tough-guy antihero. I was doing well with these roles.

Act of Love (1953)

I don't know if this is a good film, but to me it's a great film because that's where I met my wife, Anne Buydens, to whom I have been married for 60 years. I write about our strange romance in Life Could Be Verse. Anne was hired to do publicity for Act of Love, and we became friends. I, of course, wanted more (she was beautiful and had a fantastic sense of humor), but she didn't want to be a movie star's latest fling. One evening I took her with me to a charity event at Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, in which French movie stars were the featured performers. I was known as "The Darling Brute" in French media, so the organizers asked me to participate. I went backstage, where they found something "appropriate" for me. Right after the elephant act, I came out -- still in my tuxedo -- with a broom and shovel to clean up the droppings. Anne laughed so hard that I knew I had won her over.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

This was the first movie Walt Disney made with live characters. We were on a six-day-week shooting schedule, so Anne and I flew up to Las Vegas after work on Saturday to get married, took in Sinatra at the Sahara, and flew back to L.A. the next night. I played the banjo and sang in the film. I also recorded "Gotta Whale of a Tale," and it became a hit. It even topped Sinatra's latest record for a few weeks -- which I enjoyed teasing him about over the years. It became a song my kids and I liked to sing together. During a scene in It Runs in the Family where Michael, Cameron and I are fishing in a canoe, Michael suggested we warble it together. I enjoyed that.

The Indian Fighter (1955)

When I started Bryna, my own production company (named for my mother), this was our first picture. It was a Western shot in Oregon, and I offered my ex-wife Diana a good part. Anne was pregnant with our first son, Peter, but she readily agreed to have my older boys, Michael and Joel, stay with her in Beverly Hills while Diana and I were on location. To this day, we call Diana "our first wife" and remain good friends. The film did well, and the Bryna Company was on its way.

Lust for Life (1956)

I wanted to make Lust for Life at Bryna, but it turned out that MGM owned the rights. I still wanted to play Van Gogh, especially since John Houseman and Vincente Minnelli, my team from The Bad and the Beautiful, were attached. I loved being back in France, and we shot in all the places where Van Gogh had lived and painted. But it was also horrible. I became so immersed in his tortured life that it was hard to pull back. In makeup I looked like him, and he had been my age when he died. Sometimes I would reach my hand up to touch my ear to make sure it was still there. After its release, I was contacted by Marc Chagall to do his life story. I admired him greatly, but I never wanted to play another artist. My friend John Wayne was not happy with me playing Vincent. He said we owed it to our public to play only strong, tough characters. I told him that I would continue to play any role I considered interesting. Despite my difficulty in shedding the Van Gogh persona, I did eventually come back to myself. On the other hand, I don't think John (I never called him "Duke") ever dropped the role of John Wayne that he so carefully crafted for his life.

Paths of Glory (1957)

I had seen an interesting film called The Killing by a young director named Stanley Kubrick. I contacted him to see if he had any other projects. He gave me Paths of Glory, and I loved it even though I knew it would never be a commercial success. I got financing from United Artists, and we headed off to Germany to shoot around Munich. When I arrived, Stanley had completely rewritten the script. It was awful. He wanted to make it more commercial, he explained. As it was a Bryna film, I insisted we use the script I loved. I was right. It didn't make money, but it was a critical success. I found Stanley to be supremely talented but extremely difficult. With a bigger budget and a bigger payday on Spartacus, he became twice as difficult, but what a talent!

Spartacus (1960)

"I am Spartacus" is the most remembered line of the film and is often parodied. I used it as the title of my 2012 book about the making of the movie. Believe it or not, Stanley Kubrick hated the scene where all of Spartacus' men claim to be him. He didn't want to shoot it, but I insisted. After all, I was not only the star but also the producer who signed his paycheck. Our screenwriter was Dalton Trumbo, working under the pseudonym "Sam Jackson" because he was on Hollywood's notorious blacklist. What a shameful period that was, especially since we were all hypocrites, hiring the blacklisted to use their talents at reduced wages. I wanted Dalton to writeThe Last Cowboy, which Universal retitled Lonely Are the Brave, but I asked him to write Spartacus first. I was in a race to show a finished script to my dream cast of British actors -- Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Charles Laughton -- before Yul Brynner, with a rival project called The Gladiators, could approach them. Spartacus was a demanding movie, and I was crucified not only on screen but off of it, by the likes of powerful columnist Hedda Hopper and the American Legion, for using a book written by Howard Fast, a Communist, and giving Dalton screen credit. But the public embraced it, especially after the popular new President John F. Kennedy came to see it in a Washington theater and then proceeded to praise it.

Lonely Are the Brave (1962)

As I have said, this is my favorite movie. I love the theme that if you try to be an individual, society will crush you. I play a modern-day cowboy still living by the code of the Old West. Dalton wrote a perfect screenplay -- one draft, no revisions. My character gets into a bar fight with a vicious one-armed man. He was actually Burt Lancaster's stand-in, who had lost his arm in the war. It was a tough shoot in and around Albuquerque -- high altitude, snow, fog and freezing rain in May! I didn't get along with the director very well; plus, he had no regard for safety. When we were shooting on a narrow ledge with a steep drop, he asked me to walk around my horse on the outside. I wanted to be on the inside against the wall, because the horse instinctively would protect itself. Even after I explained, he argued with me, but I had seen too many unnecessary accidents to agree. The best relationship I had on this film was with my horse, Whisky. Of course, the horse couldn't talk back.

Seven Days in May (1964)

I was advised that making this movie would be risky because it concerns an attempted military overthrow of the U.S. government. But I ran into President Kennedy in Washington at a fancy buffet dinner. He had loved the book and spent 20 minutes telling me why it would make a great film. I could have played either of two roles: the bad guy behind the takeover plot or the good guy who blows the whistle to the president. I sent the script to my pal "Boit" Lancaster, telling him to choose whichever role he wanted to play. I would take the other. I did enjoy playing a nice guy for a change. We needed a shot of me entering the Pentagon, and nothing but the real thing would look authentic. We stole the shot, concealing the cameras in a van parked across the street. I was dressed in my Marine colonel's uniform. The guard saluted me. I saluted back and walked in, waited a bit, and walked out. Seven Days in May had its first sneak preview the night I closed in the play of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nes, which limped along for five months -- my final attempt to make it as a major Broadway star.

Bonus: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

And that brings me to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a movie I neither produced nor starred in despite all my best efforts. My son Michael asked if he could take a crack at producing it, so I gave him the rights, not at all sure whether he would have any more luck than I did. Well, it opened to raves, and on Academy Awards night, the film won all five major Oscars. I couldn't have been prouder of Michael, even though he wouldn't let me play McMurphy. "You're too old," he said. And this was in 1975, some 40 years ago! I forgave him. Jack Nicholson was superb.

Here are eight more that, with the utmost respect, he ought to have on his list...

Out of the Past (1947)

Only Douglas' second movie, Jacques Tourneur's classic tale has all the hallmarks of classic film noir, chiaroscuro cinematography, a beautiful femme fatale, and a hapless protagonist caught up in a dark labyrinthine plot. Honest but compromised ex-PI Jeff Bailey/Markham (Robert Mitchum) gets caught up in a complicated web of crime and deceit as his past, in the shape of mobster Douglas and his double-crossing girfriend, Janet Greer, comes back to haunt him. The film is beautifully shot by Nicholas Musuraca, the cinematographer on Tourneur's horror classic, Cat People.

Posse (1975)

This was Douglas' second and final film as a director; it's a smart little Nixonian Western about a corrupt marshal, Howard Nightingale, who hunts down bank robber Jack Strawhorn (the ever-wonderful Bruce Dern) in the hope that it will accelerate a career in politics - then the tables are turned as Strawhorn kidnaps Nightingale and the posse resort to robbing a the town to raise the ransom, thus turning the people against the marshal.

Detective Story (1951)

William Wyler's brutal picture of a New York detective living on the edge as he hunts down criminals, has the same dark tone as Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends, made a year earlier in 1950. Detective Jim Grant (Douglas) obsessively pursues criminal low-lifes in New York,but his particular target is a doctor practising illegal abortions.When Grant uncovers evidence that the doctor carried out an abortion on his wife (Eleanor Parker) while she was going out with a racketeer, Tami Giacoppetti, he finds it uncomfortable to live with the knowledge.

Last Train from Gun Hill (1959)

A great, spare little Western in the mode of the excellent (original) 3:10 to Yuma. John Sturges directs Douglas and Anthony Quinn as two old friends who have gone their separate ways and operate on opposing sides of the law. Marshal Douglas reaslises that the person who raped and murdered his Indian wife is the son of his old friend Quinn, 'boss' of the town of Gun Hill. Quinn refuses to turn over his son (Earl Holliman) and our hero has to take on the entire town in order to get the murderer on that night's last train from Gun Hill.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

Douglas (as Doc Holliday) teams with old friend Burt Lancaster (Wyatt Earp) in John Sturges' take on the events in Tombstone in 1881. The gunfight is given plenty of back-story to explain how Earp and Holliday met in Fort Griffin, where we are also introduced to Johnny Ringo and Ike Clanton, who will come back to haunt them; they 'tame' Dodge City and moved on to Tombstone at the invitation of Wyatt's brother, Virgil, where they confront the Clantons who are trying to deal in thousands of stolen cattle.

Ten years later, Sturges would return to the same characters, this time played by Jason Robards, Jr. (Holliday) and James Garner (Earp) for a much darker and more accurate taken on the events, though it focuses on the way the Clanton gang are hunted down after the gunfight.

The Big Sky (1952)

Based on A, B. Guthrie's novel, Howard Hawks' film tells of two young men (Douglas and Dewey Martin), who join an expedition to travel up the Missouri River in the 1830s to trade with the Blackfoot. On the way, they fight off their rivals, The Missouri Fur Company, and Crow Indians - and are rivals themselves for the attention of a beautiful Indian woman. Although the trip is finally successful, Douglas loses out to Martin as far as the woman is concerned and he returns down the river alone.

The Heroes of Telemark (1965) 

Anthony Mann's fact-based winter time war film is a perennial favourite on British television. Neither Mann's nor Douglas' best work, this is, nevertheless, a tense adventure about Norwegian physics professor Rolf Pederson (our boy) dragged into the war by a resistance fighter Knut Straud (Richard Harris) in a attempt to stop the Nazis developing heavy water. The British commando troop assigned to the plant are wiped out, so it's up to Straud, Pederson and a small group of resistance fighters to carry out the raid themselves - which they do, but not without serious complications.

The Fury (1978).

Brian De Palma's supernatural conspiracy movie sees Douglas playing an ex-CIA agent trying to find his son (Andrew Stevens), who has been kidnapped by an agency (led by John Cassavetes) within the Agency, because it wants to use his psychic powers to serve the US government. Douglas is pit into contact with a girl (Amy Irving) who has had psychic contact with his son and whose powers the agency also want to harness. They manage to find his son and although their reunion is tragic, Irving manages to use her powers to destroy Cassavetes in spectacular fashion.

Young Man with a Horn (1950)

Micahel Curtiz seems like a strange choice to direct this film based, in a somewhat carefree manner, on a novel that was inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke. Douglas plays Rick Martin, a talented horn player who gets a gig with a renowned bandleader only to fall out with him when he improvises. Though he picks up his career when singer Jo Jordan (Doris Day) falls for him and gets him work with a dance band, tragedy ensues when he begins to romance an unstable medical student (Lauren Bacall) and Ricks sinks into the despair of alcoholism – only to be rescued by an old colleague (Hoagy Carmichael, a friend of Beiderbecke), who, along with Jo, inspires him to recover his love of music (and Jo). Harry James provides the trumpet for the soundtrack.

I Walk Alone (1948)

Tempting though it was to pick that thoughtful action film The Vikings (1958), the offbeat Western There was a Crooked Man (1970) or the utterly strange and brutal The Light at the End of the World (1971), my final choice is the great little noir-ish crime thriller directed by Byron Haskin that sees the first pairing of Douglas with Burt Lancaster. Douglas plays Noll Turner, partner of Frankie Madison (guess who) in a rum-running racket during Prohibition. They make a deal that if either is jailed, he will still get an equal share of the ill-gotten gains when he is freed. In due course, Frankie is jailed, freed and goes to see his old friend for his share, but Noll, by now an ambitious gangster/businessman running a successful nightclub, has welched on the deal – which results in a complex narrative of double cross and shoot-outs.

My personal top five - in no particular order - would be Lonely Are the Brave, Out of the Past, Ace in the Hole, Seven Days in May and Paths of Glory.