Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight

For Magnum Photos I wrote about W. Eugene’s Smith moving photographs of Charlie Chaplin as he made Limelight (1952), the most personal film of his career:


Photo by W. Eugene Smoth (1952)

TCMFF 2016 – Saturday 30th April: Perfect Waves

Saturday already?

With two days left, it was time to step up a gear. There were still friends to see – those I kept missing during the festival and others who would not be attending – so a little strategic planning was in order. As previously stated, viewing priorities change on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Intentions to The Big Sleep (1948) and The Long Goodbye (1973) fell by the wayside but my original priority remained and I excitedly joined the queue for ‘An Afternoon With Carl Reiner’/Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982).


I cannot recall the first time I saw Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid but I do know that it was at home, it was during the nineties and it was very likely on VHS. I have always been surrounded by Film Noir and was spoon fed the images of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall since I was born. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I was the only girl in school whose Dad had movie stills of Bogart, Bacall and James Dean tacked up in his wardrobe. The photos were there before I was born and, almost forty years later, they are still hanging up there on their original sticky tabs from the seventies. (Hi Dad!)

The beauty of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is how it draws out everything that we love about Noir and gently pokes at elements we overlook or take for granted. It’s a funny film but we are not laughing at the Noir genre itself: we laugh because these are elements so recognisable – the slaps around the face, copious amounts of coffee and liquor, the midnight phone calls, the shoot-outs in offices. This was reciprocated by Eddie Muller – aka “The Czar of Noir” – whose introduction specified that some of his first experiences of the genre came from this film and opened them up to a whole new, younger, audience.

After the film we had the pleasure of seeing Illeana Douglas interview the film’s writer and director Carl Reiner. Such a treat – I could have listened to them talk all day. Aged ninety-four, Reiner is still as sharp as a tack, and his “oyster in a slot machine story” anecdote (use your imagination) had the audience in stitches. He gave plenty of context to the film – describing the writing/selecting the relevant scenes process as akin to a puzzle, and how its star Steve Martin (who co-wrote the film) stayed away from Noirs beforehand lest it influenced his portrayal. I learnt (and loved) the part about his crew being assembled of many individuals who had worked on some of the original films, for example composer Miklós Rózsa (Double Indemnity, 1944; The Lost Weekend, 1945) and the renowned costume designer Edith Head (winner of eight Academy Awards, including All About Eve, 1951; Roman Holiday, 1954; To Catch a Thief, 1956). It was to be Heads’s final film, an appropriate finale to a career spent dressing some of Noirs most infamous characters.


I did not stay for Reiner’s book signing but took a brief pause to catch up with friends Larry and Emily, who had texted to say that they were just around the corner. Although I had only talked with Larry prior to meeting we had a great chat and they were super nice and gracious of their time. Again, felt privileged to finally meet and talk face-to-face with people who I admire and respect after many years.

Then it was back over to Club TCM at The Roosevelt for A Conversation with Elliot Gould and to grab some Warner Archive DVD’s off Matt. Alec Baldwin was hosting and the camaraderie was lively, fun and funny. The only problem was the room itself. You know the Rior Grrl mantra “Girls to the Front”? Well, the same should have applied in Club TCM – especially “Small Girls to the Front” – as I, and many of my friends, stand at 5’0 and struggle to see a thing apart from people’s backs. Matt was struggling too. Here’s the proof. (And yes, we found humour in this and were probably the ones being shushed).

Then it was back to the TCL to see Craig and ‘Becca from This Cinematic Life. One of my favourite couples, we seem to have known each other for years and it was baffling that this would be another first. That’s the trouble with the Internet: we often forget that we are living in separate countries are not minutes away from each other. As I was going to The Endless Summer (1966) and they were seeing The King and I (1956) we basically spent the hour looking and trying the footprints outside the theatre. Very little time but a pleasure nonetheless.

On my way into the cinema I ran into Raquel. FINALLY! We kept missing each other at the Reiner afternoon and there, with no plan in action, had run into each other for the same film! We obviously marked this momentous occasion through Instagram.


Marya’s affection for The Endless Summer was a large part my choosing this film. She had talked so enthusiastically over drinks the previously evening that I would have kicked myself had I missed it. Having thoughtfully saved us places, I sat with Marya, Kristen and Raquel for the Bruce Brown interview and two hours of total relaxation.

The film is pretty self-explanatory – a documentary about surfers in search of “the perfect wave”. The film had no distribution deal in place on its release yet managed to bewitch audiences and critics with its simplicity and enthusiasm. Even though I would venture back across to Club TCM that evening for some of Forbidden Planet (1956) I thought about how appropriate The Endless Summer is in the context of TCMFF: the best moments are nothing particularly flashy or fancy – sitting with friends, talking, watching films – yet in these moments find what you are really wanting and searching for: the most sought after perfect wave.



TCMFF 2016 – Friday 29th April: “Some Days You Just Can’t Get Rid of a Turkey”

As Raquel, Jessica and Kendahl covered Francis Ford Coppola’s handprint ceremony on Friday morning, I was still debating which films to see that day. I had already changed my mind dozens of times and TCM did not make things easier by pitting Double Harness (1933), a pre-code starring William Powell and Ann Harding, against He Ran All the Way (1951), a Noir where John Garfield holds a family to ransom over a Turkey dinner. This was to be a continuing dilemma as the pre-codes – always the festival’s biggest attraction – are consistently shown in the tiniest theatre (TCL House #4, capacity 177).


Two very enticing titles meant that this really was a win-win situation that called for one tactic: try for Double Harness and if unsuccessful run across to the Egyptian for John Garfield. This was to be a universal plan and the very long line meant that soon I joined Ariel, Peter, Nora, Coleen, Will – and the rest of us who had tried our luck that morning – to head over the road.

He Ran All The Way was hardly a second choice and did not disappoint. A gritty, menacing Noir, we were soon being terrorised by a crooked Garfield brandishing a gun, then a large piece of poultry, into the faces of Shelley Winter’s terrified family. Furthermore, I was in awe of Galdys George’s wardrobe and her superb, very minor, role as Garfield’s mother who smoked, drank and bitched her way through barely two scenes.


The sense of bleakness within He Ran All the Way is also palpable off screen. The Blacklist haunts the film – its screenplay was co-written by Dalton Trumbo and Garfield was blacklisted two months before the film’s release. It was also to be Garfield final film – he died one year later. Denis Berry, whose father John Berry (who was blacklisted after Edward Dmytruk named him as one of the Hollywood ten) directed the film, gave an affecting, personal introduction of life during this era. We can read about the time and see movies written, during and about this historical Hollywood period, but it is only when you hear it directly from someone who experienced and lived through it all that the reality truly hits home.


After refuelling it was back over to the TCL for some lighter Pre-Code sauce. Pleasure Cruise (1933) was just a ticket, a fluffy film where a married couple decide to take independent holidays: Genevieve Tobin’s high flying career woman books a cruise while her stay at home/house-husband Roland Young opts for golfing holiday. However, he has secretly taken a job as the ship’s barber, watching-on jealously as Tobin tries not to succumb to Ralph Forbes’ propositions. Meanwhile, Young has to stave off the attention of a flirty passenger – eyelash-batting, giggly Ana O’ Connor – who cannot resist waving and throwing her underwear at him. Oh, the hilarity! It’s a light riot.


The Roosevelt’s evening poolside screening of Batman (1966) was the place to be. I love this film – it remains consistently funny despite repeated viewings – and there are times when you think, “yeah, it knocks the socks off the new versions”. The icing on the cake was the pre-film interview with Adam West and Lee Meriwether hosted by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. It was funny, lively and (I’m guessing) the only time in my life where I would get to see Batman and Catwoman together in the flesh. The crowd was putty in their hands as West delivered his famous line of dialogue, “some days you just can’t get rid of a Bomb!”. He also gained extra points for his comments on the newer masked vigilantes: “what’s an Affleck?” – Pow!.


I did not stay for all of the film but managed to spot some familiar faces. I had a nice chat with Angela while Jessica talked to an older Gentleman who had met Lillian Gish in New York, 1977. There are so many interesting people at the festival…after the interview I ventured into the warmth of Club TCM. I was able to prise Marya away from her social media duties for a well-deserved chat and drink at 25 Degrees, The Roosevelt’s bar. As much as the festival is about the films, it is the moments with friends that make the time so special and such great fun. Around 10.30pm she went back to work and I called it a night, taking this great photo in the cab on the way.






Book Review: ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ by Alan Light



Nina Simone was a fascinating woman whose life and music continues to intrigue and captivate. I have always loved her voice, marvelled at her piano skills, and admired how she used lyrics to seduce in one song and damn in the next. Yet, appallingly, my knowledge of Simone’s life and character remained appallingly limited.

I unsurprisingly lapped up Liz Garbus’ Oscar-nominated, Netflix produced What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) on its release. The warts-and-all film shows Simone’s undeniable talent – a musical genius whose audiences would be spellbound in her presence – yet whose personal life was extremely troubled and unsettled (loneliness, physical and chemical abuse, illness). She made mistakes. She was a difficult character. Yet she was a transcendental performer whose talent shines brightly on the screen. Would a written biography be able to capture her musical talent in quite the same way?

Nina Simone, born Eunice Waymon and raised in Tryon, North Carolina, was a musical prodigy who dreamed of becoming the world’s first black classical pianist. Playing the piano at her preacher mother’s sermons brought her to the attention of congregation member Muriel Mazzanovich – aka “Miss Mazzy” – her first piano teacher who co-founded a fund for Eunice’s musical education. This fund supported her move to New York to attend New York’s Juilliard School. As the fund dwindled she tried, and was rejected, for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Although she never fully recovered from this unfortunate incident, we can pinpoint this event as changing the course of the young woman’s life, initiating her evolution from Eunice Waymon to Nina Simone.

Alan Light’s biography of the singer, also titled ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?,” is an engrossing companion piece. Due to Simone’s electrifying performances, some individuals may find themselves preferring the faster paced, snappier, musically charged film to the written version. However, the book is richer in detail and includes periods of Simone’s life which Garbus, due to time restraints, naturally omitted. Light utilises additional first hand accounts by those closest to Simone – her musicians, ex-husband Andy Stroud, and her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly – providing a full yet stark account of this flawed but extraordinary artist whose life included numerous love affairs, struggle with sexuality, activism in the fight for civil rights, and career highs and lows. Fundamentally, Light paints Simone as a woman who never recovered from the lack of attention and affection her mother showed her in childhood, setting a precedent that would greatly influence Simone’s relationships with lovers, with her musicians, with her audience, and most significantly, with her daughter.

‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ is a richly personal biography and a fitting companion to an enthralling film. Simone was a tormented genius – a mass of contradictions – who, underneath all of the drama and problems remained Eunice Waymon: the little girl from South Carolina whose biggest regret was that she never became the world’s first black classical pianist.

* ‘What Happened, Miss Simone’ by Alan Light is published by Cannongate Books
ISBN: 9781782118732

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (Lisa Immordino Vreeland, 2015)


la-et-cam-peggy-guggenheim-art-addict-20151111From championing of a young artist named Jackson Pollack to the International galleries bearing her name, Peggy Guggenheim’s name is synonymous with art. Despite no formal training she possessed an artistic sixth sense when it came to greatness and an ability to seek out the marvellous. In Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, Lisa Immordino Vreeland weaves archive and audio recordings, film footage, and photographs with input from historians, curators and authors to produce an incredibly absorbing documentary on a remarkable woman.

Vreeland divides the film into chapters – decades and places that bookmarked a specific point in Guggenheims’s life. It’s quite a life. Born into a well-known, if rather eccentric New York family (her Uncle Solomon Guggenheim founded the New York Museum and her father Benjamin Guggenheim went down with the Titanic), she left her abusive marriage and job in New York bookstore for the Bohemian lights of Paris. She mixed with the great and good of the literary and art worlds – Dali, Ezra Pound, Picasso, Cocteau, Kandinsky – including Duchamp who she called her “great, great teacher”. Taking Duchamp’s advice to “go where the art was,” she travelled and opened numerous galleries across the world, including London’s Guggenheim Jeune Gallery, where the Surrealists held their infamous 1937 London exhibition and Dalí appeared in a deep sea diver’s suit.

Guggenheim’s life was filled with art, sex and adventure but was very low on personal satisfaction. Her marriage to Max Ernst ended when he had a affair with Leonora Carrington (he later married Dorothea Tanning), and she appears incredible lonely. This is why the film works so well: it is not a piece of hagiography but an intimate portrait of a woman whose life was less than perfect. She had a reputation for being ‘difficult’, she had affairs, she lacked confidence in her appearance  – further elevated when she endured a botched nose job that was never corrected – and even developed a nervous ‘tick’.

Guggenheim once said, “it’s horrible to get old. It’s one of the worst things that can happen to you”. Maybe she thought her name would be forgotten? Some may say she was lucky – and, yes, in many ways art was her protective shield and emotional crutch – yet there is no denying that she was very astute woman with a canny business sensibility who brought avant-garde to the masses. Vreeland’s documentary is paramount to her legacy; a beautifully executed artwork of a woman who deserves to be noticed.

*Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is released on DVD and VOD 22 February 2016