One of the nice background touches in the terrific Danish political drama Borgen, whose episodes can be seen on LinkTV and L.A. station KCET, is the never-mentioned poster on the front door of reporter Katrine Fønsmark's apartment.
It tells you why she became a journalist and why, even though the guy kissing her is the prime minister's “spin doctor” (apparently his official title), she maintains a certain skepticism toward public officials. She actually seems a little young for All the President's Men to have sparked her ambitions, but I do know baby boomer journalists whose career ambitions were shaped by that glamorous portrayal of journalism.
More than we like to admit, glamour influences our answers to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Think of all the architects and designers inspired by Ayn Rand's uncompromising genius Howard Roark. As a story of struggle and triumph, The Fountainhead is romantic, but Roark as an ideal is glamorous. As Michael Bierut writes in his classic post on Design Observer:
Roark's view towards clients -- "I don't intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build." -- still seems to describe the private yearning harbored by most of my fellow professionals whether they care to admit it or not.
Glamour shapes our ideas of what careers are possible and what satisfactions they might offer. It allows us to see our future selves in fulfilling roles. When I reported a column on CSI's glamorous portrayal of science, I heard tales of surging enrollments in those forensic-science. (Numb3rs did not, however, have a similar effect on operations research, the applied math on which that show drew most often.) In its day, L.A. Lawreportedly increased law school applications.
Of course, glamour always contains an element of illusion, hiding difficulties and flaws and heightening rewards. In an American Bar Association Journal article, a critic complained about the law according to Stephen Bochco:
In a typical day in La La-Land, beautiful lawyers drive beautiful cars to the beautiful office, discuss sex with twins at a firm meeting, leave for court to win a case that is not only on the "right side" but very lucrative, then go to a beautiful dinner with tonight's beautiful sexual conquest.
At a recent conference I heard a fashion-merchandising professor lament a litany she hears from naive freshmen: Rachel Zoe. Despite what a generation of fashionistas has taken from Zoe's reality show and public persona, "celebrity stylist" isn't a realistic career goal or a subject you can get a degree in.
On the other hand, sometimes even the craziest ambitions come true. As a discerning reader at Zócalo Public Square wrote in the description of my November book talk there, “For a young Bill Clinton, glamour was the Kennedy White House.” And look where it got him.
Was your career choice influenced by glamour? If so, how?
'Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen' on view at the NYPL for the Performing Arts, Oct. 18, 2012 - Jan. 12, 2013.
With this post, we introduce our newest DG contributor, Jessica Barber. (If the post's formatting looks odd, please adjust the width of your browser window. TypePad can produce some odd effects with photo placement, and they aren't Jessica's fault.)--vp
Last month I had the great pleasure of patronizing the beautifully curated costume exhibition Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, in a seemingly unlikely venue for such a topic: the New York Public Library. The exhibition was organized by the Kent State University Museum, which was given 700 items from Hepburn's estate several years after her passing in 2003 at the age of 96. (The museum is renowned for its extensive costume collection, which contains more than 40,000 objects.) In collaboration with the NYPL, the exhibition included not only many of the costumes from the actress's long career in stage, film, and television, but also examples of the casual everyday wardrobe that helped solidify her as an icon of “rebel chic.”
The fashion and costume designers represented in the exhibition were a veritable who’s who of Hollywood names: Valentina, Howard Greer, Muriel King, Irene, and Cecil Beaton, to name a few. Exhibited alongside garments and accessories were other film and stage ephemera such as posters, playbills, lobby cards, and even a makeup kit used by Hepburn, with various brushes, lipsticks, and Max Factor concealor still inside.
Black silk evening gown by Walter Plunkett, worn by Hepburn as Amanda Bonner in 'Adam's Rib' [MGM, 1949]; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.4, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn. Designed to accent her 20" waist, this gown was colored red by the MGM publicity department for the lobby card, right.
Original lobby card for 'Adam's Rib' [MGM, 1949]; Kent State University Museum, KSUM A2010.3.14, Gift of Christopher P. Sullivan.
Katharine Hepburn, Self-portrait as Coco Chanel, 1970, watercolor on paper; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.58, Gift of Katharine Hepburn
One of the most important points the exhibition illustrated was Hepburn's high level of involvement in crafting her characters' wardrobes. More than many of her contemporaries, Hepburn was acutely aware of the importance of dress not only to the characters she portrayed but to the overall storyline as well. She worked closely with the designers of her film and stage ensembles (famed costume designer Edith Head once remarked that one "did not design for her," but "with her") and she even made sketches of her own costume designs. The muticolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina that she wore as Jamie Coe Rowan in the 1942 film Without Love was one of many dresses that Hepburn personally sketched, noting details of the fabric choice, the construction, and how the skirt "simply floated."
Hepburn was also known to sketch self-portraits of herself as the characters she played. These captured the qualities she wanted to convey with each. Among the sketches included in the exhibition was her watercolor self-rendering as Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, whom she played in the stage musical Coco (1969). Chanel was a hardworking couturière who was known for her stern personality, and this trait is skillfully conveyed by Hepburn's characterization.
Multicolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina, worn by Hepburn as Jamie Coe Rowan in 'Without Love' ; Kent State University Museum, KSUM 2010.12.62, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn.
Katharine Hepburn as Jamie Coe Rowan, wearing a multicolored pastel silk organza gown by Valentina in 'Without Love' .
Cream silk georgette and crêpe de Chine nightgown by Irene, Kent State University Museum, KSUM A2010.12.3, Gift of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn.
Also of particular note was how meticulously well-crafted and in rather good condition many of these garments were, such as this shirred and appliquéd cream silk georgette and crêpe de Chine nightgown designed by Irene and worn by Hepburn as Mary Matthews in State of the Union (MGM, 1948). As any designer for the stage or screen will tell you, this is not always the case. Between the forgiving eye of the camera (or the forgiving distance of the audience from the stage) and the many retakes and rehearsals, the film and theatre costumes in museum collections are notorious for their shabbiness. But even from behind a wall of Plexiglas, it was clear that much care had been put into their detailed construction. This is no doubt also a reflection of how involved Hepburn was in the process of designing and creating them, and of the high standard to which she worked. As the exhibition text noted, she often had recreations of her costumes made for her everyday wardrobe, so it is no surprise that they were made to stand the test of time.
Slacks and jodhpurs worn by Katharine Hepburn at the NYPL. Image credit: The Associated Press.
Of course no clothing exhibition of Katharine Hepburn's would be complete without at least a passing mention of her well-known preference for trousers in her everyday life. The exhibition included many pairs of slacks and jodhpurs skillfully installed on half-mannequins in poses that playfully evoked her unabashed preference for this masculine style, when it was still unheard of for women to express such sartorial sentiments.
With four Academy Awards for Best Actress (and eight additional Oscar nominations), Katharine Hepburn remains the most decorated actress in American film history. Even ten years after her passing, she continues to charm the public with her style, wit, and enduring performances. As noted in the exhibition brochure, perhaps Calvin Klein summed up Hepburn’s mass appeal best when he presented her with the CFDA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985: “She has truly epitomized the ultimate American woman. She’s vibrant, she’s outspoken, she’s hardworking and she’s independent…and, fortunately for all of us, she’s never been afraid to be comfortable.”
(Note: The exhibition opened to the public in October 2012, and three months is the generally accepted upper limit on exhibitions featuring costumes and textiles because of their fragility, so the exhibition closed in January 2013. But, you can still download a PDF copy of the handsomely illustrated exhibition brochure here).
Glamour icon? London-based model, DJ, and scene-maker Alejandro Gocast is making an impressive go at that status. I first stumbled across Gocast on Facebook, as part of the revived New Romantic club scene in London that I’ve long admired and written about here on DeepGlamour. Arising in the early 1980s, the New Romantics represented a creative, dressed-to-impress music and style movement, post-punk, post-disco. Now, more than 30 years later, Gocast is one of a new generation of New Romantic club kids. And he cuts a spectacular image in modeling and club photos. I interviewed him exclusively for DeepGlamour.
CH: How do you describe what you do? I think of you as a model, a glamorous nightclub personality, and a DJ. But give DG a fuller picture of what you do?
Gocast: I would describe my career as an eclectic one. As well as being known for what you have mentioned in the London scene, I also have a career in luxury events management. My life is not a simple one. It can be challenging at times keeping up with schedules, appointments, club nights, friends, family—the list is endless, but then again life is for the living.
CH: Where are you from? Your Model Mayhem profile says you are from Latin America, with parents of Mexican and German descent, respectively. How old were you when you moved to Britain?
Gocast: That is one tricky question. I am actually British, although I was born in Mexico. I have lived in London since a very young age. However, my mother language is Spanish, therefore (unfortunately) I do not have the honor of speaking with an English accent. My “genetic” background has indeed German from my dad’s side and Mexican from my mother’s. I hope this all makes sense.
CH: You have such a distinct look, one that I would describe as exotic and androgynous. Not what most people might think of as a typical male model. How would you describe your style image? And how did you discover and develop that image? (Did you get started in the new New Romantic club scene in London, or was it some other inspiration?)
Gocast: My image definitely started in the London club scene. I used to go out to “normal” clubs and bars, but always feeling that I was not quite suitable for them, I started to look for a more arty environment and played around with different looks, which I still do. Since I have always had a thing for the New Romantic style, I decided to become “re-born” into a new way, more in sync with my inner personality and my personal opinion in life, which is a very simple one: be who you are.
CH: What musicians and bands are atop your current playlist? What musicians and bands are lifelong favorites?
Gocast: I have a wide range of taste when it comes down to music, and also quite extreme. I go from hardcore metal to Kate Bush. My personal music player is full of extremes. I do not really focus my attention to one artist or band. Since you asked, a few on my playlists at the moment are Garbage, JLo, Amanda Lear, Tribal House, Korn, Dead or Alive, Donna Summer, Kate Bush, Siouxie and the Banshees… see what I mean?
CH: You've worked with numerous artists and designers. Perhaps one of my favorite of your collaborations has been with Marko Mitanovski, a favorite designer of Lady Gaga. When I first viewed his fashions, I was truly astonished - they are strange and intriguing and elegant. Anthropomorphic creatures in black and white. How did you come to model for Mitanovski?
Gocast: I met Marko at one of my clubs, “THE FACE.” He was a guest there, and the moment we met we knew we would be working together. It was the right chemistry and we also get along really well. It is indeed a pleasure to work with him. I can’t wait for his next collection! I love his dramatic design style.
CH: Is there a designer you wear most often right now?
Gocast: I wear a lot of pieces from various artists, and it is just a question of blending and matching them to create my night-out style. I recently worked with Dane Goulding, who designed for the Spice Girls. He has some truly amazing pieces.
CH: You've been in a few fashion-art short films. I thought "The Dionysian" released in 2011 was really beautiful, and you looked darkly enchanting wearing lace and a high collar. And enormous spidery eyelashes. What was that experience like? What sort of direction were you given in the film, in terms of posing or projecting a certain image?
Gocast: This film was shot in London, in December. It was a very cold night and the director knew exactly what he wanted. Since we shared the same vision, I fit perfectly in the film. This film is going to an exhibition in Paris this year. I have worked behind and in front and the camera for a few years now, and the experience is always the same for me, exciting and always looking forward to seeing the final creation.
CH: You starred in another fashion/art film called "Perform Nijinsky," which was produced by the very talented cabaret performer Mr. Pustra. Clearly the film was something of an homage to the early 20th-century Ballet Russes legend, Vaslav Nijinsky. Can you tell DG more about that film project?
Gocast: Pustra is a good friend and I am also an admirer of his work. Together with Dorota Mulczynska, the vision of a morphed early 20th Century Ballet Russes was created into a short film, celebrating and honoring Nijinsky.
CH: Do you often do your own make up for photo shoots and club nights? Or do you more often work with a make up artist?
Gocast: For photo shoots I do work closely with Stephanie Stokkvik, a Norwegian high fashion make up artist. I have learned so much from her. If you have time, have a look for her on the net—she is amazing! When I go out, I normally “paint my face” on my own.
CH: Who is your top style icon?
Gocast: I am afraid I do not have one.
CH: When you travel around on everyday errands, to the grocery and laundromat and whatnot, how do you look and dress?
Gocast: You would not recognize me, that’s all I call say. I try to go under the radar when out and about on my personal life in order to give some space to myself and my close friends and family.
CH: When you aren't working, what do you do for fun?
Gocast: I am a bit of a geek. I own a PS3 and a whole bunch of games. I enjoy also watching horror movies with friends.
CH: What is your dream vacation destination?
Gocast: My other half loves traveling, and I have been lucky to have been to and seen some amazing tropical paradises. My favorite places.
CH: Do you have favorite perfumes/colognes?
Gocast: Yes, I am currently about to finish “Un Jardin Sur Le Nil” by Hermès, and my next fragrance will be from Diptyque Paris.
CH: What are your go-to make up and skin care products?
Gocast: Any good moisturizer does, really, not any favorites in particular.
CH: What professional goals do you set for yourself? Are there particular photographers, artists, or designers you long to work with? Or, do you have something else in mind quite different from what you are doing now?
Gocast: I am shooting a few more fashion films this upcoming year and planning on starting some sketches for my own collection. However, I must keep this under wraps. I am pretty much open to work with anyone - as long as the chemistry is there, anything is possible.
CH: What are your New Years Eve plans?
Gocast: I am spending New Years Eve with a good friend of mine. She runs a club in Bricklane, from which I will also be throwing another infamous club night soon. It is a very intimate space with limited capacity, which is just what I like.
Some 30 years ago, the New Romantic music movement reignited a return to sophisticated glamour and elegance in pop music sound and style. Next Tuesday, December 18, one of the quintessential New Romantic bands, ABC, will celebrate that moment in time with a special performance at London's Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Fronted by the blonde, statuesque singer Martin Fry, the band will perform its 1982 debut album, The Lexicon Of Love, backed by a full symphony orchestra.
“Thirty years is insane but the album still purrs along like a Bentley,” Fry recently told the Daily Star, drawing a comparison to another sort of glamour icon.
The album is lush and romantic, even without an orchestra. Readers might recall hits off the Trevor Horn-produced album, such as "Look of Love" and "Poison Arrow." But one need not even care for the music to appreciate the grand vision put forward by the artists and, indeed, the genre—both then and now.
At the height of disco, punk, and guitar-rock dominance in 1978, the band started out in Sheffield, England as an unremarkable-looking experimental electronica band called Vise Versa. But, as lore would have it, Fry's band mates suddenly discovered he could sing, and the band completely remade its sound and image, replete with skinny, matching 1960s-style suits and perfectly coiffed waved back hair. As the frontman, Fry pushed the style statement further by dazzling audiences in a now-iconic gold lamé suit.
It's interesting that so many years later, Fry's music aesthetic may have evolved beyond the New Romantic Lexicon sound, but his on-stage fashion presentation remains one of thoughtful elegance: expertly tailored suits made on Savile Row. Some are made of brightly colored dupioni silks in blues, purples, and oranges. As often, they are more subdued charcoals and periwinkle-grays. All are usually paired with simple ties and an ornate, statement belt buckle. The overall effect is that someone has made a very deliberate and respectful effort to dress for a specific special occasion—an audience, a show.
Long ago, a friend told me that he once imagined himself as Martin Fry, an elegant, mysterious man off on any manner of James Bond-style international intrigues and adventures. Perhaps that image also sprang from an oddly-conceived spy-thriller short film called Maptrap intended to promote Lexicon. Directed by Julien Temple, the film featured the band traveling in danger and intrigue behind the Iron Curtain. I think that captures as well as anything the vision Martin Fry and ABC intended to inspire—the illusion of a beautiful, glamorous life.
James Bond is not a “realistic” character; real people occasionally smile. But he is a compelling and distinct one. With the right leading man, Bond is just human enough to be believable—and yet sufficiently aloof and suave to appear mostly untroubled by the world’s real worries. He thus provides just the right amount of escapism. The best fantasies are those that appear not entirely unattainable.
This observation offers an insight into why Bond used to be the quintessentially glamorous male figure. Glamour offers an emotionally specific version of escapism. It does not merely stir adrenaline or laughter. Rather, glamour provides a way to imaginatively transcend the constraints and burdens of everyday life. For a moment at least, it makes us feel that our greatest yearnings are achievable, that the impossible is possible, that we are not stuck with the life we have.
As Bond/Fleming sits in America and tucks into a mountain of crabs and melted butter, gorges on steak ‘so soft you can cut it with a fork’ and slurps another giant martini it becomes an almost pornographic contrast with the cable-knit sweaters and briarwood pipes, trad-jazz-revival and milk-bar world he had flown away from. As Felix Leiter in the book of Thunderball watches from a helicopter through his binoculars a naked girl sunbathing on a yacht and yells to Bond, ‘Natural blonde,’ Fleming’s original, chilblained, earnest British reader, with his uncontrollable flashbacks to the Burmese jungle and ill-informed keenness on Harald Macmillan, must have flung the novel across the room in despair.
Skyfall continues the Daniel Craig movies’ deglamorization of Bond. Here, he epitomizes not the old easy grace but, as M says in his premature obituary, “British perseverance.” The film is a celebration of the world the old Bond offered audiences escape from. This stoic, aging 007 belongs to the tough world of Tennyson, Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher, not the Jet Set. He struggles, suffers, and eventually wins out.
We don’t long to live in his world. We fear we already do.
Described by The Independent as a "glamorous gold chameleon," British singer-songwriter Alison Goldfrapp projects strong, stylized imagery in all her performances, whether on screen or on stage.
I suspect she's just showing off here in demonstrating that with super-slick audio and visual production values—and the right pair of legs—glamour can even shine through gritty images of ashtrays, toilets, and garbage:
The retro Studio 54 stuff doesn't hurt either.
Whatever else she has going for her, she seems to have the glamorous art of being photographed with an indirect gaze and obscured eyes down to a science:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal qualities and story helped to invest the diverse relationship between Hollywood and the White House with a special resonance. This resonance in particular would enhance the figure of the president in certain cinematic terms—in other words, in terms that reflected the publicizing of heroic male figures in mass culture. As the theater provided Lincoln with emotional and philosophical guides to leadership, movies provided FDR with a mirror in which he could perceive and evaluate the deeper meanings of his life and his presidency. The fundamental reason for this deep bond lay in Roosevelt’s unprecedented employment of performance (as dramatic artists understood the word) in service to his presidency.
While Lincoln mined Shakespeare to enrich the music and the tragic weight of his prose and pondered melodramas (as well as Shakespearean tragedy) to elucidate his career-long fascination with tyranny and its consequences, Roosevelt, in keeping with his times, strove for a lighter touch. Through his effective use of radio in the Fireside Chats, he built on his cousin Theodore’s efforts to transform political speech from orotund Victorian practice to casual conversation suited to the age of mass media. He consciously confined the vocabulary of the Chats to about a thousand of the most common words, and always broadcast to a small group of guests in the Oval Office to create the feeling of an actual conversation.
To be sure, Roosevelt proved equally effective, especially during election campaigns, at booming and occasionally portentous oratory before huge crowds, but here too he showed his mastery of the microphone, adjusting his voice to the space and its echo and providing a novel new variety of temperaments, extending to effective uses of humor. Through his skilled introduction of light and humorous speaking qualities to presidential oratory, as well as the general buoyancy of many of his public appearances, Roosevelt conveyed his appreciation for comic acting and monology, in the style of Will Rogers and similar performers of the time.
The president’s most important performance by far was the deception with which he masked his physical disability. While every citizen knew about Roosevelt’s bout with polio, which afflicted him below the waist in 1921, almost none of them ever saw it literally paralyze him. In public the president walked, stood, smiled, and confidently led the nation. FDR was brazen enough in his first inaugural address to characterize fear as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” apparently unworried that his passing reference to paralysis might diminish his own image at the very moment he was attaining power.
From the time he contracted polio FDR spent virtually waking hour of his life battling the image of the invalid, first to restart and to advance his political career and then, as president, to project the traditional image of the national leader—a Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, or Theodore Roosevelt “running” for office and “marching” the people forward. In the age of movies, this expectation was heightened. As the art historian Sally Stein has observed, “today’s mass media intensifies the popular impulse to scrutinize the bodies of leaders and would-be leaders for signs of the[ir] abilities.” Even in the electronic age, while “absolute monarchs may sit . . . politicians dependent on popular mandate are expected to demonstrate quite literally their ‘good standing’ by rising to present themselves to their constituents.”
For Roosevelt, confronting such expectations was an unyielding physical and psychological challenge. His campaign led him to acquire a spa in Warm Springs, Georgia; experiment with quack medical remedies; devise steel leg braces and paint them black so that they would not be detected against his socks; and feign walking, falling forward while a strong man grasped his arm.
He even assumed the traditional leader’s pose by mounting a horse during his campaign in 1928 for the governorship of New York. Since his legs could not grip the horse’s flanks, this was a dangerous stunt; a slight movement by the animal likely would have thrown him to the ground. These efforts were only part of his ordeal, though. As one biographer, H. W. Brands, has put it, FDR
had determined, not long after contracting polio, that he would deny its effects on his life and dreams. The sheer physical effort of standing in his braces, of staggering forward, step by lurching step, of smiling through the sweat and the clenched hands gripping the lectern for dear life, would have exhausted anyone. But the emotional effort was at least as great. He couldn’t show his anger at his lost athleticism, his vanished virility, his physical dependence on others. He couldn’t be discouraged or despondent….The result of all this was that the actor never left the stage.
Even during times of relaxation such as his “children’s hours”—afternoon cocktails usually in the company of his adoring female secretaries and cousins —FDR projected an air of insouciance and buoyancy, mixing drinks while seated behind the liquor cart. In the dark first days of his administration, as the financial system hung in the balance, his adviser Raymond Moley found him to be almost unreal, “unmoved” by turmoil as if he “had no nerves at all.” Earlier, at the inaugural ceremony, the pioneering motion picture actress Lillian Gish—who was perhaps uniquely qualified to render evaluations of an individual’s “star quality”—marveled at Roosevelt, exclaiming that the new president seemed “to have been dipped in phosphorus.”
Coupled with this, as Brands perceptively notes, was the fact that Roosevelt was by nature a devious and misleading personality. “He had been emotionally isolated since boyhood. His close relationships had always been with persons not his equal. He had no close friends as a boy or young man, no one at Groton or Harvard in whom he genuinely confided.” Decades before he fell to polio, he enjoyed fooling people with verbal misdirection and his befogging brand of charm. Voters heard the young FDR boast about achievements that were entirely the work of others; election opponents, lulled into complacency by his genteel demeanor, learned only later of his ruthless campaign plotting and dealmaking; and he betrayed Eleanor by conducting an affair with Lucy Mercer, her own secretary. Eleanor’s uncle Theodore, as Booker T. Washington and many others noted, had seemed totally lacking in deviousness, possessing a “straightforward indiscretion, [a] frankness to the point of rudeness.” His cousin Franklin’s demeanor could not have been more different.
Part of the difference was due to changing times. In the decades after Theodore’s death, the advertising and public relations industries asserted that individuals (as well as corporations) must wear a carefully constructed public face in order to succeed, and the motivational speaker Dale Carnegie sold millions of books advising ambitious young men to mask their mundane, everyday selves in job interviews or in business transactions. In an era that celebrated public deception for the benefit of advancement, FDR was a truly representative man. His Herculean efforts to mask his paralysis and his despair made him a virtuoso of deceptive public performance.
As president, manipulating allies and foes alike, Roosevelt kept the goals of the New Deal multiple and often contradictory, so that he might preserve maximum political flexibility. He admiringly called himself “the juggler,” but some of his machinations also held a cruel edge. More than most presidents, as the biographer Conrad Black put it, “Roosevelt punished his enemies.” Stung by the opposition to the New Deal of Moses Annenberg, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, FDR led a relentless effort to convict Annenberg for income tax evasion and sentence him to maximum time. Roosevelt ignored petitions on Annenberg’s behalf from Jack Warner, the movie comedian Eddie Cantor, and many others, and the publisher remained in federal prison until shortly before his death.
Ambassador Joseph Kennedy had done FDR no favors by blatantly claiming that Great Britain—the country in which he was stationed—was doomed to fall to Hitler, but Roosevelt’s bizarre and utterly insincere audiences with Kennedy during his visit home in November 1940, in which he lavished praise and sympathy on the diplomat, seemed designed only to make his imminent firing all the more brutal. As in Annenberg’s case, the movie industry played a supporting role in Kennedy’s fall. Speaking at a luncheon in Hollywood given in his honor by studio chiefs, the ambassador made his most strident isolationist comments to date, praising Hitler’s regime in front of dozens of Jewish producers and directors. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. reported Kennedy’s comments to the White House, and the president summoned Kennedy to his home in Hyde Park. Moments after he greeted the ambassador, FDR seethed to Eleanor, “I never want to see that son of a bitch again as long as I live!” brusquely ordering her to take him to the train station.
Such deviousness and cruelty, of course, are not uncommon in the annals of politics and leadership, and more than most leaders, Franklin Roosevelt might be excused for utilizing such means to achieve noble ends. Nevertheless, if we observe his tactics in tandem with his campaign to hide his paralysis and with his sensitivity to the power of mass media, such as radio and motion pictures, we sense that FDR was building new connections among the presidential image, political tactics, and the growing cultural appetite for celebrity.
It is particularly notable that while Roosevelt and his inner circle worked to hide his paralysis, they also relied upon his audiences—the press and the electorate—to willingly suspend their disbelief, to play along with the ruse that FDR really could walk and “stand for office” like any other strong leader. As Sally Stein notes, the public conspired with FDR to cover up his actual physical condition, engaging in “a collaborative process of dealing with the president’s lack of conventional signs of mastery.” In late 1932, when an article in Time magazine made a passing reference to the president-elect’s “shriveled legs,” hundreds of readers wrote indignant letters, and the magazine refrained from using such language again. It is difficult to quantify the impact of the public’s desire to protect Roosevelt’s image and to help him maintain the illusion of conventional physical strength. Although he faced some of the most adverse political and social challenges in American history, across an unprecedented three full terms and four election campaigns, the illusion persisted.
In the second of our excerpts from The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, historian Burton Peretti looks at how the relationship between the White House and movie stars intensified during Franklin Roosevelt's administration, leading to high-profile movie-star appearances and to more movies about past, present, and imaginary presidents. (Unlike Steven Spielberg, who held his new Lincoln movie until after the election, Hollywood during FDR's administration had no qualms about mixing past and present politics.)
The Great Depression and World War II intensified the escapist power of the movies and the voters’ tendency to search for idealized, cinematic, heroic traits in their elected leaders.
It is striking how much more visible Hollywood became in the Roosevelt White House. Movie stars, familiar to Americans from their appearances on theater screens, began to show up regularly at the White House during the Roosevelt administration. The main impetus was an annual event on behalf of a charitable organization founded by the president, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (which later renamed itself after one of its fundraising efforts, the March of Dimes). While the public never received a clear account from the press of the extent of Roosevelt’s handicap, they were aware of his illness, and the novelty of having a president afflicted by polio intensified press coverage of the disease and efforts directed toward its prevention and cure.
As a result, in late January 1934 a small gathering of movie celebrities at a Washington hotel, hosted by the performer and humorist Will Rogers, celebrated Roosevelt’s birthday for the purpose of raising money for polio research. Hollywood publicists then concocted a plan to transport a larger group of well-known movie performers to Washington every year, beginning in 1935, in conjunction with the president’s birthday. The performers lunched at the White House with the First Lady and attended a variety of fundraising affairs around the capital. With the exception of young Ginger Rogers’s invitation in 1936 to witness the delivery of a Fireside Chat in the Oval Office, none of the participating actors met the president himself. FDR instead attended annual birthday dinners, which were held the same evenings as the movie stars’ lunches but were attended only by government officials. From 1935 to 1937, when Roosevelt was at the height of his popularity, the annual Washington birthday event inspired similar events on the same night in other cities, to raise money for the fight against polio.
Owing to such Hollywood–White House contacts, Alan Schroeder argues, “it was Franklin Roosevelt who first perceived the power of association waiting to be harnessed in Hollywood stars.” This power of association was a deeply emotional bond connecting Roosevelt, his family, and more liberal members of his administration with their most fervent supporters in the movie industry. During Roosevelt’s terms, the unwritten but long-standing American taboo that barred star performers from partisan activism was often breached.
Hollywood’s increasingly central role in American political culture was also evident in the first significant depictions of U.S. presidents—fictional and real ones—in sound films. Not coincidentally, these depictions first appeared during the depths of the Depression, at the precise time the nation looked to Roosevelt for leadership. D. W. Griffith had presented Washington and Lincoln as supporting characters in his silent historical epics, and his first talking film was a Lincoln biography, but before 1932 Hollywood avoided depicting real or imagined presidents; politics, in the main, was not considered dramatic. The Depression steadily altered this view in a number of the popular arts, as exemplified by the groundbreaking musical comedy Of Thee I Sing (1931).
In Hollywood it was, perhaps not surprisingly, William Randolph Hearst who produced the first, fevered cinematic portrayal of the presidency. Gabriel over the White House (1932) has long fascinated critics and historians with its story about a weak president who is transformed by a blow to the head into a bold, quasi-dictatorial leader. Walter Huston (who had portrayed Lincoln for Griffith two years earlier) enacts Hearst’s own thwarted fantasy of a populist leader unbound by legalistic restrictions, free to confront the Great Depression and the threat of organized crime with paramilitary squads and government by decree.
As the Great Depression eased later in the decade, presidents in movies were portrayed in a more sentimental fashion. The avalanche of Lincoln lore, unleashed in the wake of Carl Sandburg’s very popular biography, epitomized the back-to-the-land sentimentality of the New Deal era. It was manifested in Hollywood in the late 1930s films Abe Lincoln in Illinois (from the play by Robert E. Sherwood, soon to become FDR’s speechwriter) and Young Mr. Lincoln, as well as Frank McGlynn Sr.’s supporting appearances as Lincoln in many films. More generally, the leading director Frank Capra developed a passion for contrasting homespun, Lincolnesque American goodness with ruthless corporate power in a series of celebrated films. The most overtly political of Capra’s films, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), was vaguely based on the story of Senator Burton Wheeler, who before his isolationist heyday had arrived in Washington from the Montana farmlands as progressive young crusader. Yet, as Michael Rogin and Kathleen Moran have shown, Mr. Smith muddled its political messages and obscured its ideology so completely that Capra—possibly by design—leaves the audience with only a vague yet powerful sense of pride in the little man. (Capra’s last political film, Meet John Doe , is more pessimistic but equally opaque in its political orientation.)
Finally, there was FDR himself, whose representations in 1930s studio films still startle viewers today. The first FDR movie “appearance” occurred in the 1933 musical extravaganza Footlight Parade, in which the Broadway impresario James Cagney’s closing stage show “Shanghai Lil” evolves unexpectedly into a patriotic celebration of the New Deal (and the National Recovery Administration in particular). An audience onstage holds up cards to produce a large image of the president’s face, as martial band music explodes on the soundtrack. The scene is often considered an illustration of the fervent support of FDR by the brothers Warner, well known as the leading Democrats in Hollywood.
Darryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox was another Roosevelt supporter, as was the director John Ford, and it was undoubtedly these men who ensured that the resettlement camp director in California in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)—the virtual savior of the Joad family, welcoming them smilingly to the clean and friendly camp at the end of their cross-country ordeal—resembles an ambulant FDR, down to his grin and eyeglasses. In wartime, Warners and Cagney revisited Roosevelt in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), an award-winning biography of the entertainer George M. Cohan, which begins with Cohan (played by Cagney) visiting the Oval Office and receiving warm praise from President Roosevelt (portrayed once again by a lookalike, but only shown reverently from the back). [Watch the scene here.] Zanuck then gambled the Fox studio’s assets on an expensive film biography of FDR’s mentor Woodrow Wilson, which explicitly endorsed the internationalism at the heart of American policy during World War II. These films collectively represented the apex of Hollywood’s favorable depiction of a sitting president and his goals.
Eating lunch in the mall food court the other day, I happened to see this Taylor Swift video from 2008. I was struck by the costumes. The men and women's clothes were inspired by completely different periods.
The man, who seems to have stepped out of a Jane Austen novel, is channeling the Regency styles of the early 19th century.
The video isn't, of course, a period piece. Its imagery is meant to evoke a fairy-tale romance. Vaguely 18th-century court garb spells "princess," while a black suit with a bit of ruffle at the collar and cuffs says "olde time gentleman lover" without being too jarring to contemporary eyes. (You don't want him looking like Adam Ant or Roger Daltrey in the highwayman post below.) Plus there's the Jane Austen connection.
Completing the mashup are the song's lyrics, which compare the high-school lovers not only to a prince and princess but also to Romeo and Juliet, who were from a still-earlier period. I suppose it all just proves that young love is timeless.
As the "trailer" above suggests, the traditional way of trying to fix the Oscar show involves finding the perfect host. But Billy Crystal won't save a show that doesn't give the audience much of a rooting interest. In my latest Bloomberg column, I look at some more-radical ideas for saving the Oscars from their long-term ratings decline. Here's the opening:
Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony faces the real possibility of ratings humiliation. The Oscar telecast will almost certainly draw a smaller TV audience than the Feb. 12 Grammy Awards.
True, Whitney Houston’s death the day before boosted Grammy viewership to more than 39 million. But that’s only part of the equation. The Oscar ceremony is gradually losing viewers.
In only two of the past five years -- and five of the past 10 -- has its U.S. audience topped 40 million, according to Nielsen Co. (Last year’s Oscar show attracted 37.9 million viewers.) By contrast, from 1990 to 2002, the audience never dropped below 40 million, and it swelled to 55 million in 1998, when the monster hit “Titanic” won Best Picture and 10 other awards.
The downturn isn’t inevitable. American TV viewers love competitions. “American Idol,” “Dancing With the Stars,” and football account for eight of the top 10 regularly scheduled programs. This year’s Super Bowl was the most-watched TV show in U.S. history, with 111.3 million viewers, beating the record set by the 2011 game.
Although TV audiences may be fragmenting, live events where fans have a rooting interest are still major draws. They give people something to argue about. They engage viewers’ passions. They create must-see TV.
So the Oscar telecast has great potential. At No. 9, it was still the only non-sports program to rank in last year’s top 10. (It ranked 10th among younger viewers, ages 18 to 49 -- another bad sign.) But the usual approach of looking for the perfect emcee and tweaking the live performances -- this year’s show promises a one-time-only Cirque du Soleil act -- won’t stop the decline. The Oscars are about the movies, not podium jokes and stage spectaculars. Generating audience enthusiasm requires more radical steps. Here are a few ideas for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, all designed to engage moviegoers’ interests without sacrificing Oscar voters’ independent critical judgment.
1) Split the Best Picture category into two, based on the number of tickets sold.