Monday, August 15, 2005

Howard Hawks and the Lost Starlets

You might have noticed that in my recent posts on '60s starlets who should have become big stars -- here and here -- there were several actresses who got their best opportunities in films by Howard Hawks. Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, Paula Prentiss in Man's Favorite Sport? and Marianna Hill in Red Line 7000 all got better roles than they had ever had before or ever would have again in the movies.

It's not the quality of the writing that sets these roles apart; Dickinson's part in Rio Bravo, writing-wise, is a re-hash of various characters in earlier Hawks movies (plus a bit of Marlene Dietrich, courtesy of the writer, Jules Furthman, who wrote many of Dietrich's best movies), Prentiss's part is a knockoff of the female lead in Bringing Up Baby, and Hill's part in Red Line 7000 is as badly-written as everything else in the movie. What sets these roles apart from the other roles the actresses got is that instead of being shoehorned into generic categories (the good girl, the bad girl, the wife), they are given the freedom to be unique and interesting. So while the parts are written as generic "Hawksian women," the actresses invest these roles with some of their own quirky qualities and come up with what amounts to new characters, new qualities we haven't quite seen on the screen before.

More than that, we can see an actress in Hawks movies -- if she's a good actress, anyway -- developing a persona, rather than just playing the same old heroine. If Dickinson, Prentiss and Hill had become superstars, they probably would have done so by adopting personas similar to the ones they displayed in Hawks movies: Dickinson's wisecracking vulnerability, Prentiss's loopiness, Hill's combination of straight-talk and sultriness. A lot of this might simply come from the fact that Hawks was an improvisatory kind of director who believed in giving his actors a lot of freedom within a scene; this allowed talented young actresses to put more of themselves into a part than most directors would allow, and the characters they came up with bore a lot of similarity to the way Dickinson or Hill or Prentiss came off in interviews. Instead they had to repress a lot of what made them interesting in order to fit into the roles they got elsewhere, and that's no way to become a star.

I think that's part of what made Hawks one of the best directors of women, the fact that he allowed actresses to invest a part with some of their own uniqueness. Of course, like most directors, he tried to get people to act a certain way; Jean Arthur rebelled against his attempts to make her do his tough-gal schtick, and we all know about his "molding" of Lauren Bacall's voice and manner. Yet despite that, the Lauren Bacall in her Hawks movies seems a lot more real and natural than the Lauren Bacall who played more generic heroines, with more generic acting, in many of her subsequent movies. But the combination of Hawks's coaching with his laid-back directorial style provided a good framework for an actress to develop a persona: within the general outline of the way a "Hawksian woman" needs to sound and act, she can improvise and put some of herself into the part. Many directors give that kind of freedom to male actors; I don't think there are as many who allow women to go outside the box, so to speak. Renoir was another director who sometimes did that, and like Hawks, he liked his movies to feel loose and improvisational.

The other thing that made Hawks a good director of women was that he was one of the few directors who was willing and even eager to let his heroines make complete asses of themselves. Think of Carole Lombard's screaming fits in 20th Century, Katharine Hepburn's psycho-comedy in Bringing Up Baby, Rosalind Russell talking a million words a minute and tackling a man in His Girl Friday, Joanne Dru shooting off a gun and babbling incoherently in the cop-out ending of Red River. Most directors, even good ones, portray women as either madonnas or whores (coughScorsesecough), giving their actresses little choice but to fit their performances into one category or the other. Hawks was one of the few directors who would allow his actresses to be just as crazy -- and just as uncategorizable -- as the men.

Not to get all mushy about Hawks (and, after all, Man's Favorite Sport? and Red Line 7000 aren't very good movies), he made some bad casting choices of actresses, especially after 1959 when his casting choices seemed largely predicated on how pretty he thought an actress or actor would look on the screen. I still can't figure out why he put Charlene Holt in three movies, including a big role in that rehash of rehashes, El Dorado. All the actresses in Red Line 7000, except Hill, are pretty but pretty bad (same with all the actors who aren't James Caan). Jennifer O'Neill was a perplexing choice for the perplexingly bad Rio Lobo. And who the heck is that strangely-accented young woman who acts as Paula Prentiss's dull sidekick in Favorite Sport? And so on.

However, the list of actresses who did better for Hawks than they had ever done before is even longer. Sometimes it involved an actress developing a new persona or showing hitherto untapped abilities that she would carry over into her other movies, like Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Bacall, Marilyn Monroe. Sometimes an actress would do things in a Hawks movie that she wouldn't try to do again, like Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. And sometimes an actress would just get her first chance to do what she did best, like Joan Collins, hitherto mostly cast as good girls, getting a chance to be a super-bitch in Land of the Pharaohs.

All in all, if you want to see a good part for a woman, you're better off popping in a random Howard Hawks movie than any current "chick flick".

(By the way, I'm starting to think I should expand this "lost starlets of the '60s" concept into a full-fledged article. I'd have to find another title, though, because I just found out another blogger already used it. However, that was for a generic post about "'60s chicks," while I am weirdly concerned with the "'60s chicks" who deserved to be taken seriously as actresses. But in case that interests anybody else, I'll try to write some more about it.)

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