29 August 2015

Ingrid Bergman Centennial


Today marks the 100th anniversary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth. Born on August 29, 1915 in Stockholm, Sweden, Bergman was orphaned by the age of 12. She later said of herself, “I was the shyest human ever invented, but I had a lion inside me that wouldn't shut up!" Interested in acting from a young age, she won a coveted spot at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater School but left after a year to take a chance with the movies.

Her first on-screen speaking role came in 1935 when she played a maid in Gustaf Molander’s Munkbrogreyen. A year later she made Intermezzo with Molander. Her performance, as a piano teacher who has an affair with a famed violinist, caught the eye of producer David O. Selznick who brought Bergman to America to make an English-language remake of the film.

Bergman was like a breath of fresh air in Hollywood. Refusing to submit herself to the makeovers most new actresses went through, she said no to changing her name, plucking her eyebrows, capping her teeth, or losing weight. She shunned make-up and high fashion off screen and indulged in her favourite discovery, American ice cream.

Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942)

Bergman’s dedication to her craft won her the admiration of her peers—Selznick said, “Miss Bergman is the most completely conscientious actress with whom I have ever worked.”—while her natural beauty and talent won over American film audiences. She would go on to star in some of the top films of the 1940s including Casablanca (1942), For Whom the Bells Toll (1942), and Gaslight (1944), for which she won the first of three Oscars. She also made two films with Hitchcock at this time, Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946), my personal favourite. Bergman’s wholesome image, which was cultivated by the studio publicity machine, was cemented in the public’s mind when she played a nun in The Bells of Saint Mary (1945).

In her private life Bergman, who was married to Dr. Petter Lindström and had a daughter, Pia, conducted extramarital affairs including one with photographer Robert Capa. But it was her involvement with Italian director Roberto Rossellini that would change her career and life. Having seen a couple of his films, Bergman wrote a letter to Rossellini that said, "If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French and who in Italian knows Ti Amo, I am ready to come and make a film with you." She travelled to Italy to make Stromboli (1950) with him. During the filming the two fell in love and Bergman became pregnant. When the news broke the public turned on her, and she was even denounced on the floor of the US Senate.

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini with their children at their home in Rome. Photo by Chim (1956)

After divorcing Lindström, Bergman and Rossellini were married in 1950. In addition to their son, they would have twin daughters, Isabella and Isotta Ingrid. Bergman continued working with Rossellini, making five more films together, but their marriage didn’t last and they divorced in 1957. Bergman would later marry Swedish theatrical producer Lars Schmidt (they remained married for 17 years until their divorce in 1975).

In 1956 Bergman returned to American screens in Anastasia playing the part of Anna, the woman suffering from amnesia who may or may not be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia. The film was a hit, and she won her second Oscar. Bergman's Hollywood exile was officially over when she appeared at the 1959 Academy Awards and received a standing ovation from the audience.

Bergman would continue to act in both films and on stage, winning a third Oscar in 1974 for best supporting actress for Murder on the Orient ExpressIn 1978 she made Autumn Sonata with the acclaimed director Ingmar Bergman. It was to be her last film. In 1982 she played her final role—Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in a television miniseries. She passed away later that year on her birthday. 

Ingrid Bergman. Photo by Richard Avedon (1961)

Ingrid Bergman's centennial is being celebrated in a variety of ways. Her image was chosen for the official Cannes Film Festival poster, there is a new documentary, Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, and a book Ingrid Bergman: A Life in Pictures. Here in New York, MoMA is screening a selection of her films August 29-September 10, with many of them being introduced by her children (for more information, visit here). Over in Brooklyn, BAM is presenting a selection of her films September 13-29 and on September 12, Isabella Rossellini and Jeremy Irons will give a theatrical tribute to Bergman (for more information, visit here). 

22 August 2015

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Parker!


Today is Dorothy Parker’s birthday. Born on August 22, 1893 in Long Branch, New Jersey, she grew up to become one of the great American wits of the 20th century. A member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, this quintessential New Yorker was a poet, playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and champion of civil rights (she also loved dogs). The woman who once said “I'd like to have money. And I'd like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that's too adorable, I'd rather have money” is one of my favourite writers and a role model. 





To celebrate her birthday, I went on a walking tour of her Upper West Side haunts led by Kevin Fitzpatrick, author of multiple books of Mrs. Parker and the Round Table. During the tour we stopped at 310 W 80th Street, where she lived as a teenager, and sang “Happy Birthday” and enjoyed a specially made birthday cake by Dandy Dillinger. It was a great way to spend her birthday.

So raise a glass wherever you are and say, “Happy Birthday, Mrs. Parker!”

19 August 2015

The First Portrait

"Self Portrait" Robert Cornelius (1839). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Today is World Photography Day. To honour the occasion, I’d like to look at an important photo in photography history—the first photographic portrait. 

The oldest known surviving photograph dates from either 1826 or 1827 when a Frenchman named Nicéphore Niépce took “View from the Window at Le Gras,” which depicted the view of his property from an upstairs window. After his death in 1833, his business partner, Louis Daguerre, continued their work and in 1839 announced to the public the creation of the daguerreotype, which would become the main photographic process used for the next 20 years.

In America 30-year-old Robert Cornelius, who specialized in silver plating at his family’s Philadelphia lamp manufacturing company and had an interest in chemistry, became interested in this new invention. A few months after Daguerre's announcement, Cornelius set up his own camera (whose lens was taken from a pair of opera glasses) behind his family’s store and took a self portrait. He wrote on the back, “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.” He had successfully taken the first portrait of a person with a camera.

In the image Cornelius is off center and his hair is a bit of a mess but it’s a pretty good first attempt. (Sidenote, is it just me or does he not look like actor David Morrissey?) It’s also striking how modern Cornelius looks or maybe that's from seeing so many daguerreotypes of old Victorian men.

Cornelius continued to hone his skills as a photographer and opened the second photography studio in the US with chemist Paul Beck Goddard, who would improve on Daguerre’s process by adding bromine to iodine, which lessened exposure time. Yet after a couple of years Cornelius gave up photography and returned to the family business where he created new inventions including the first kerosene lamp. 

Only a few dozen of Cornelius' photographs are known to still exist. Luckily his self portrait is one of them. 

15 August 2015

Time Flies


Wait, it's already the middle of August? And I haven't posted anything this month? What?

I have a list in my notebook of dozens of posts I want to write, including many about exhibits and films that I saw months ago. So why haven't I just written them?

As Dorothy Parker said, "I can't write five words but that I change seven." That, and choosing to watch movies late into the night instead of writing doesn't help matters.

Oh, the horror.

29 July 2015

The It Girl

Clara Bow


Today is the birthday of the original “It Girl”—Clara Bow.

Born in Brooklyn on July 29, 1905, Bow’s childhood was one straight out of a nightmare. Raised in poverty with a mentally unstable mother who threatened to kill her and a father who sexually abused her, the seventh-grade drop out’s one avenue of escape was the movies.

In 1921, Motion Picture magazine announced the Fame and Fortune Contest. First prize was a part in a movie. Bow’s father paid $1.00 for her to have two photos taken at a Coney Island studio, which she delivered in person to the publishers. The manager of the contest noted on her photos, “Called in person—very pretty.” Bow ended up beating out the other contestants and won. 

She was given a part in Beyond the Rainbow (1922) but her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Her next role as a tomboy in Elmer Clifton’s Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) proved more fruitful, earning her praise from the critics. Hollywood soon beckoned, and Bow would go on to become the biggest star of the 1920s with films that included The Plastic Age (1925), Mantrap (1926), Wings (1927), and It (1927), in which she played her most famous role—Betty Lou, a shop girl with plenty of “it” who sets her sights on her wealthy boss. 

With her bobbed red hair, expressive brown eyes, and sex appeal that seemed to radiate off the screen, Bow epitomized the fun-loving flapper of the Roaring Twenties. In fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "Clara Bow is the quintessence of what the term 'flapper' signifies as a definite description: pretty, impudent, superbly assured, as worldly-wise, briefly-clad and 'hard-berled' as possible."

By the 1930s though Bow's flame had burned out. Overworked, mistreated by the studio, and suffering from scandals and ill health, she made her final film, Hoop-La in 1933 before retiring from acting. She moved to Nevada with her husband, Rex Bell, and raised two boys. As she got older, Bow suffered from schizophrenia and ended up living alone, separated from her family. She died on September 27, 1965 while watching a film from the 1920s.

If you've never seen a Clara Bow film, do so, now. She is brilliant on the screen—funny, adorable, heartbreaking, and well deserving of the title of "It Girl." Happy Birthday, Clara.

28 July 2015

Joan of Arc at the Stake


Marion Cotillard and Eric Génovèse in Joan of Arc at the Stake. Photo: Patrick Berger

Marion Cotillard often portrays characters who are a mix of fragility and strength. Last month, I was fortunate to see her play one of these roles when she appeared with the New York Philharmonic in Arthur Honegger’s oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake. Composed in 1935 with a libretto by Paul Claudel, the piece was performed in French by Cotillard (in one of the few speaking parts) along with the New York Choral Artists and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

Joan of Arc at the Stake opens with a dramatic prologue sung by the chorus about darkness having fallen on France. Added in 1943, it served to establish the situation of the country during Joan of Arc's life while simultaneously condemning the Nazi-occupation of France.

A seemingly dazed Joan appears. Having been found guilty of heresy, she is about to be burned at the stake. She conjures up an imaginary sympathetic friar, Brother Dominic, who has with him a book that tells the story of Joan's life. He reads to her, and we see flashbacks of Joan’s life, starting with her trial, which is represented as some sort of surreal circus with a jury comprised of sheep and a pig for a judge. When Joan asks Brother Dominic why she’s been condemned, he explains that she was a pawn in a card game, which is then shown being played by foolish royals. Joan recalls hearing the voices of her beloved St. Catherine and St. Marguerite, how she helped the King to claim his throne, and of happy moments during her childhood in Lorraine. Brother Dominic leaves, and Joan goes to her death with the Virgin Mary and a choir of angels watching over her.

While some of the farcical scenes like the animal trial were entertaining (if not a bit jarring), the piece was at its strongest when focused on Joan, who was portrayed perfectly by Cotillard. In one memorable scene, Joan shouts out the words that were thrown at her by her accusers—heretic, sorceress, apostate—as they are repeated back to her by the chorus. And the scenes between her and Brother Dominic, played by the excellent Eric Génovèse, were poignant and deeply moving. 

At times defiant, at other times scared, Cotillard's Joan was mesmerizing to watch. Often offering up childlike responses, she reminded the audience that while she may have led troops into battle, Joan of Arc was, after all, a young girl.

If you missed the New York performances, there's a DVD of an earlier production with Cotillard that can be purchased here.

12 July 2015

Bastille Day in New York




Allons enfants de la patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!

East 60th Street was in full swing today celebrating Bastille Day two days early. Presented by the French Institute Alliance Française, the street fair had dancing and singing, drinking of wine and eating of fine foods, face painting and balloon animals for the kids, and loads of booths with raffle prizes and French products for sale. It even had a very sassy mime. (All photos below by Michele).

Did I mention food? Loads of items to choose from including fruit tarts, brioche, crepes, tri-colour macarons, canneles, and more. It was a fun day and a perfect excuse to celebrate everything French.

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