Rita Hayworth married Orson Welles in September 1943. She was 25, he 28. They were young, talented, and celebrities.
The way in which the press treated the marriage was pretty much a blueprint for how they would pontificate on Marilyn Monroe’s to Arthur Miller – Beauty and the Brain. The relationship was under scrutiny and pressure from the off.
In March 1946 Rita officially separated from Orson and moved into a rented house in Brentwood with their daughter, Rebecca.
The couple got back together again to make The Lady from Shanghai (the subject of an upcoming piece on aenigma). But working together on the movie failed to revive their flagging relationship. Once filming was complete, Orson’s erratic behaviour, prolonged absences and obsessive dedication to his work kept on taking him away from his wife and daughter. Finally, in November 1947, the couple were divorced.
A few months earlier, Hedda Hopper (along with Louella Parsons Hollywood’s leading gossip columnist) interviewed Rita for the June 1947 issue of Modern Screen. It’s clear whose side she’s on and that she resents Orson for his mercurial genius (he must have made her feel so shallow and stupid). It’s pretty vitriolic stuff but it’s also interesting for the insights it provides into Rita’s and Orson’s personalities, their relationship and, not least, their home.
He’s fiery, unpredictable, cursed with the mark of genius — yet Rita Hayworth loved and lived with Orson Welles for 3 years . . . before she admitted defeat BY HEDDA HOPPER.
Rita Hayworth was at the Racquet Club in Palm Springs, and I was in my Hollywood home, but what she said over the telephone was crystal clear.
She said, “Orson and I are through, Hedda. This time it’s for keeps. I just can’t take it any longer!”
Rita sounded tired; her voice was flat. Not angry, not excited, not tearful, not sad. Just tired – a fugitive from genius, fed up and through. I thought, “So it’s over – the second honeymoon of the Man from Mars and the pretty dancing girl – and I wondered out loud to Rita, “For how long this time?”
“For keeps,” she repeated. “Forever.” “I’d like to make a bet on that,” I said, and we did. I bet that in six months she would return to Orson and she bet that she wouldn’t.
Maybe. Only a few days before, I had walked onto a Columbia Studio set with some questions up my sleeve and I’d got some very different answers about one of the maddest marriages the Fates ever dreamed up for a Hollywood pair. Love was in bloom then for Orson and Rita.
“What a tender and touching finale to a second honeymoon!” I told Rita. At least Mr. Magic wasn’t sawing Rita Hayworth in two, he was just plain killing her with a gun when I walked on the set of The Lady From Shanghai. Rita died a dozen times before my eyes, until Orson stepped out of the scene and panted, “Cut – that’s it – that’s the picture!”
Because that’s what it was – before the love song died in the second chorus – a six-months long love tour for Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, making The Lady From Shanghai, the picture they teamed in the minute they made up the first time as man and wife. I’d walked in on the very last scene. It was all over. Under her bleached and bobbed platinum curls, Rita Hayworth grinned wearily. “And for a second wedding present,” I observed, “he makes you a dramatic actress. Happy?”
Rita nodded. It was a silly question. And Orson was still courting Rita as he never courted anyone before, since they kissed and made up – and went right to work.
There’s a rock, El Morro, in Acapulco Bay down in Mexico, that’s a spot of forever Hollywood. Orson had all the barnacles that scratched and the sea anemones that stung hacked off until it was smooth and soft as a rock can be. All because Rita had to climb on that rock and lie down for a scene. He hired the Olympic champ swimmer of Mexico to hover just out of camera range in every ocean shot in which she appeared to scare away hungry barracuda. When they plunged into the jungles to shoot, he hired a bodyguard of fierce Pancho Villas complete with mustachios, bull bandilleras and blunderbusses to scare off snakes and alligators with designs on a hunk of Hayworth. Orson followed Rita around in person, bearing oils and unguents every time she had a brief encounter with the tropical sun. He had special rope-soled shoes flown down from Hollywood so she wouldn’t slip and smack her sacroiliac on Errol Flynn’s yacht deck when it rolled.
get that story…
The reason I had tracked Orson and Rita down on the set the day they completed Lady From Shanghai was because I had gotten a phone call from Al Delacorte back in. New York.
“Can you pierce the Wall of Steel that surrounds Orson and Rita,” Al inquired, “and give an inimitable Hopper sketch of their home life?”
I repeated that to Rita. Her hairdresser said, “Please, Rita, I almost stabbed you. Don’t shake so!” Rita was laughing, a little bitterly, it seemed to me.
“Our Wall of Steel,” scoffed Rita, “is either a sound stage or a sun reflector – and as for our home life – just look around. It’s this set.”
“Sometimes,” sighed Rita, “we have breakfast together, but it’s usually dinner for Orson. He’ll work 24 hours straight without eating. Then he comes home and wants three steaks and a couple of pies. Steaks for breakfast – pies – ugh!”
Orson and Rita lived – at odd hours – in a small, ranch type house out in Brentwood. Rita bought the place for herself and baby Rebecca after the last time Orson left his happy home. It wasn’t exactly a match for the little love nest they started housekeeping in when they first married. That was something you’d have to see to believe.
A Los Angeles sports promoter owned it. He’d built the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, a showy sports arena in Hollywood, and he must have told the architect, “Now build me a house to match.”
It had neon lights — honest — and three or four floors. A swimming pool with a tropical island in the middle. Mirrors and glass and colored lights everywhere and – well – I won’t go on. That’s where Mr. and Mrs. Orson Welles started housekeeping. Orson used to broadcast his radio thriller-chillers from the first floor. Rita reclined in her bed up on the third and listened in. Where career left off and home life started, I’m sure she never exactly knew.
I was out there once when Orson was broadcasting. Radio people swarmed all over. The only touch of domesticity that crept in that evening was a cocker pup of Rita’s, who wandered into Orson’s temple of art and darned near busted up the broadcast before they could shoo him out!
It took more than a puppy to break up the marriage of Orson and Rita the first time – and the second time, too. It took the most uniquely exasperating driving temperament that ever hit show business. People who work with Orson often idolize the guy like GIs worshipped Ike Eisenhower. But they can’t stand him long. He consumes them. No one can keep up with him – let alone a wife.
I also know, of course, how warm-hearted Orson Welles can be when he wants to. Years ago, before I had a column, before Orson came to Hollywood and set it on its ear with the picture they dared him to make, he charmed me where a mother is always charmed easiest. My son, Bill, had ideas then that he wanted to be an actor. He’s reformed now – he’s a business man. But then Bill promoted himself a walk-on job in the Katherine Cornell Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet. Orson had a big role. He had no idea who the shy, awkward, hopelessly unactorish kid was. But he took him under his wing; couldn’t have been more kind and helpful.
Okay. Orson’s charming, appealing, sweet when he wants to be – and also exhausting, temperamental and mad. So what made Orson and Rita separate in the first place? And then, what made them come back together again? I asked Rita all this, rapid fire, sticking my inquisitive nose – leave it to me – directly into the confusing business. Rita answered them all with one shrug and a couple of sentences.
“We’re in love, Orson and I,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Begging Rita’s pardon, I don’t think it’s quite as “simple as that.” Nothing about O. Welles is simple, not even love. He’s as complex as a jig-saw puzzle. Rita Hayworth knew that when Orson first found himself smitten and went a’wooing. He had a tough time getting a date, believe me, because Rita was scared. She didn’t want any more domineering mates. Her first husband, Ed Judson, had bossed her around and made her life pretty miserable. Orson’s genius made Rita shy as a mouse, when Romance peeped around the corner.
she stood him up…
Orson wrote her fan letters at first, from South America. When he got back, he called her up, almost every hour on the hour. She hid out, finally made a date, and stood him up! Did that discourage Welles? Not a bit. He came back for more, and then rashly Rita agreed to go out for dinner and this time kept her word. They went to Chinatown and ate chow mein. When Orson told her good night, she was in love, lost in the spell that Mister Influence wove like a web.
Rita was set to make Cover Girl then, a very swell musical you’ll remember. It was a big production for Columbia with Technicolor and tricky dances. They’d borrowed Gene Kelly from M-G-M; rehearsals were starting. Time was a-wasting and big money, too. That’s why Harry Cohn shouted “No” when Orson wanted Rita to stooge for his magic act in the tent show he was putting on for GIs in Hollywood. But Orson said that was the thing for Rita to do. So she did it. For a hard-headed show girl like Rita, that was love, or hypnotism or something.
Orson could have used any one of a dozen willing stars in Hollywood in his USO carnival act. Marlene Dietrich stepped in when Rita finally had to go to work, and filled the bill beautifully. But Orson is selfish. Nobody counts but Orson once he takes off on an airy flight of genius. But that’s the kind of a daffy divinity Rita Hayworth fell for and married.
Well, at least, she does have a child! Little Rebecca, “Becka” as she’s already named herself, looks exactly like Orson, black curls and all. But she’s Rita’s darling. Every gurgle and gasp and baby memento has been recorded in a huge picture book Rita keeps.
For all Orson loves his little Becka, Rita knows that nothing else in the world really matters to him once he’s lost in one of his creative trances. Not a wife or a baby or anything except those ideas buzzing about in his brain. One week-end during shooting, Rita talked Orson into a trip to her beloved Mexico. They went just to Rosa Rita Beach, across the border. But Orson hauled along his typewriter and rewrote the whole finish of the picture!
One of the fuses that set off their second marital blow-up was Orson’s refusal to regard Rita as a human being and a wife. She was dog-tired after her exhausting marathon acting ordeal. After that last scene I saw, she begged Orson to go away with her for a rest. “Tomorrow,” he answered, day after day, and whisked right in to the cutting room to pore over his precious film. He tomorrowed himself out of a wife at last. “I had to get away or I’d have collapsed,” Rita told me. “So I walked out.” How else?
Actually, this final split wasn’t too different from the first one – when Rita had consoled herself with Vic Mature and Tony Martin, while Orson spent his time back East with the arty Broadway boys and girls – producing a play.
Oddly enough, that play he lost his shirt with on Broadway, Around the World in 80 Days, was what brought Orson back to Hollywood and a big factor, I suspect, in bringing Orson and Rita back together for a second try at love. To help finance it, Orson charmed Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, out of $80,000, advanced against an Orson Welles picture job. When that went down the box-office drain, along with another $300,000 of Orson’s (and some other people’s), Orson, flat broke, faced making a Hollywood comeback whether he wanted to or not.
a role for rita…
Orson brought his pet Mercury Theater actors out from New York (most of them have never made a picture before) and prepared to shoot. If I Die Before I Wake they called it then, and it was a man’s picture tailored to Orson and his Mercury pal, Everett Sloane. Then, one night Orson went out to the house to see Rita and daughter, Becka. The next week his production was The Lady From Shanghai and the picture was Rita’s. Orson rewrote it in eight days, gave her the co-star part. Then they announced their official reconciliation.
Rita was happy at first, working and learning from her favorite maestro.
They spent most of the time cruising around in Mexico on Errol Flynn’s yacht, the “Zaca.” And they acted like a pair of newlyweds.
One night, for instance, Rita was ashore while Orson was out in the bay doing some night scenes with Errol (Flynn was skipper – at $750 a day on this job.) But Rita couldn’t stand to be apart from her maestro even that long. So she trekked around Acapulco with Errol’s wife, Nora, and rounded up a native Mariachi band. They found a fisherman with a boat and slipped out in the bay, circled the yacht in the dark, then had the guitars and swarthy crooners cut loose with a serenade. Then they climbed on board into their loving husbands’ arms.
When Rita’s birthday came up they were still in Mexico. Orson tossed a banquet for Rita at Las Americas Hotel with all the Mexican big shots there, the really high brass of the land. They all toasted the lovely lady and that night on her pillow she found a diamond pendant from her thoughtful hubby.
Orson might be a lovable, livable husband, if he didn’t have that spur of genius eternally prodding him out of all normal social interests. He has absolutely no relaxing interests to sop up his atomic energy.
His daughter, Becka, usually sees him on the gallop. Orson had to fly to Hollywood on business while making a street scene for The Lady From Shanghai, up in San Francisco. He flew down and flew back. “Did you get to see Rebecca?” Rita asked him.
“Oh, yes,” said Orson. “Had a nice visit. She rode with me to the airport to catch the plane!”
Opposed to Orson’s genius and dynamic qualities, Rita’s really a very normal, unspectacular girl with simple tastes and normal yearnings. She’s a model mother, both with Becka and Christopher, Orson’s nine-year-old daughter by his first wife. Christopher is always welcome at Rita’s.
I had hopes that this time the noble experiment of Svengali with Love would work. I hoped it more for Rita’s sake than Orson’s. After all, he’s got his genius to keep him warm.
I hope, above all, now that she’s had a taste of the astral spheres of acting, Rita won’t be spoiled for her musicals, whether The Lady From Shanghai hits or misses the box-office bus. That would be a shame; Rita has such a wonderful, adoring public for her songs and dances, her pretty face and figure. And it could happen. A friend of mine who knows Orson as well as I do, maybe better, was laying odds that if Orson stuck around long enough, Harry Cohn would lose his musical queen.
I, myself, might place a cautious bet that if Orson sticks around where Rita is very long, or vice versa, he’ll have her back in his spell and there’ll be kissings and makings up and a third inning of Svengali vs. Love. That guy Orson is Dick Tracy’s “Influence” without the glass eyes, and he’s still the father of Rita Hayworth’s child.
But if Rita and Orson do try it again, I’d like to suggest a good text for that needle-point sampler they may want to hang over their mantelpiece.
It’s an old gag we used to plant around Hollywood – only in this case I wouldn’t be exactly kidding – and it reads, “Danger — Genius at Work!”
Want to know more?
You can see the article as it was originally published in the June 1947 issue of Modern Screen at Fan Magazines Collection. Or you could go the whole hog and read John Kobal’s Rita Hayworth: The Time, the Place and the Woman.
In the mid-1940s, Gene Tierney seemed to have it all: beauty, talent, success. By age 25, she was a major star and had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Ten years later, she was on the verge of being admitted to a series of mental institutions.
How did such a tragic fall from grace come about? And what can we learn from it about Gene Tierney and the treatment of mental health in mid-20th century America?
Gene Tierney – beauty, talent, success and more
Gene Tierney comes from a loving, well-to-do family and goes to school in Switzerland as well as in the US. Her father is an insurance broker with clients in Hollywood. In 1938, he packs his wife and children off to California. During a studio sightseeing tour at Warner Bros, 17-year-old Gene is spotted by director Anatole Litvak, who invites her to make a screen test. She’s offered a contract but her parents forbid her to sign.
She returns home determined to become an actress and help the family out financially, now that her father’s business has fallen on hard times. And determination is what it takes:
In my circle you finished school, married a Yale boy, and lived in Connecticut. … I wanted to be an actress. Nothing else mattered. I suppose that thousands of girls of my generation talked that way, and some of them meant it, but most wound up as carhops or returned home to marry their boyfriends.
With her father’s help, she embarks on a career as a stage actress and in double-quick time makes it to Broadway, which quickly takes her back to Hollywood, as revealed in a 1941 interview with Screenland:
Columbia originally brought me out, after two minor roles in Broadway attempts. I was a scared-to-death seventeen then. I wandered and wondered about the Columbia lot, a mystery to everyone including mother and me. There was no rush to take portrait sittings, to pose in the latest fashions. Eventually I was cast in a picture, opposite Randolph Scott. … On my second day, way back three years ago, I was unceremoniously taken out and Frances Dee took over the role.
I was A Failure … I did what I could to grin and bear it. I was fat, so I dieted. I studied dancing. And when option time came I got the axe, anyhow. I’d come to Hollywood, fizzled ignominiously, and was fated to be forgotten. Only I’m stubborn. Ask mother and dad! I declined to Fade Out. At almost eighteen I knew I could make the grade with a studio.
Back on Broadway, she gets a break in the critically acclaimed The Male Animal, as a result of which she features in LIFE, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. More offers from Hollywood drop through her letterbox and she ends up signing for Twentieth Century-Fox, whose founder, Darryl F Zanuck, a notorious womanizer, hails her as “unquestionably the most beautiful woman in movie history.”
Learning from her previous abortive stay in Hollywood, this time her contract stipulates that Twentieth Century-Fox must immediately find roles for her and put her to work. In her first 12 months she complete three movies, the most important of which is Tobacco Road. At which point the studio’s publicity machine swings into action.
I was turned over to the studio’s top publicity woman, Peggy McNaught, and a photographer named Frank Powolny. Soon Peggy had me posing for Frank’s camera at the beach, at poolside, in nightclubs, on the set, and in the studio gallery. She lined up interviews and pushed me for fashion layouts in magazines and newspapers.
Over the next few years Gene Tierney appears in a succession of films including Sundown and The Shanghai Gesture (1941) Rings on her Fingers (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Laura (1944) – the role for which she’s best remembered to this day. Co-star Vincent Price would later remark:
No one but Gene Tierney could have played ‘Laura.’ There was no other actress around with her particular combination of beauty, breeding, and mystery.
As an aside, in the first instance Laura was to be directed by Rouben Mamoulian and he commissions his wife Acadia, a popular Hollywood artist, to paint the portrait of Laura, which plays such an iconic part in the movie. When Mamoulian is fired, his successor Otto Preminger decides that the portrait lacks mystery. So he sends Gene to pose for Frank Powolny, chooses one of the shots from the session and has a blow-up made and lightly brushed over with paint to create the desired effect.
The following year, Gene Tierney is nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). In spite of this, her Hollywood career is dogged by poor reviews, with critics seemingly resentful of her privileged background and striking looks – as if those advantages preclude or negate talent, determination and persistence. Suffice it to say that her performance in Leave Her to Heaven will lead Martin Scorsese to observe that, “Gene Tierney is one of the most underrated actresses of the Golden Era.”
Her experience working with Ernst Lubitsch on Heaven Can Wait is revealing of her attitude to her work and her colleagues:
Lubitsch was a tyrant on the set, the most demanding of directors. After one scene, which took from noon until five to get, I was almost in tears from listening to Lubitsch shout at me. The next day I sought him out, looked him in the eye, and said, “Mr. Lubitsch, I’m willing to do my best but I just can’t go on working on this picture if you’re going to keep shouting at me.” “I’m paid to shout at you,” he bellowed. “Yes,” I said, “and I’m paid to take it – but not enough.” After a tense pause, Lubitsch broke out laughing. From then on we got along famously.
By the time her mind crumbles, and her career with it, Gene Tierney has appeared in more than 30 movies.
Gene Tierney – a series of unfortunate events
For all her success in front of the camera, behind the scenes and under the surface Gene Tierney is going to pieces. Her plight is horribly reminiscent of William Blake’s poem, The Sick Rose:
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
A series of setbacks undermine Gene’s self-confidence and leave her increasingly fragile and vulnerable.
In 1940, she meets fashion designer Oleg Cassini at a party given by their mutual friend, Constance Moore. The two of them hit it off immediately. On 1 June 1941, they elope to Las Vegas where they get married in a private ceremony. Gene’s parents are horrified when they hear what she’s done and all but disown her.
Twentieth Century-Fox and the Hollywood establishment generally are similarly disenchanted. Even a favourable interview in Screenland three months after the event refers to “tempestuous Tierney”, “the climbing Count” and their “madcap marriage”.
Oleg has been working as a costume designer – notably on on Veronica Lake’s wardrobe for I Wanted Wings (1941), Gene’s for The Shanghai Gesture (1941) and Rita Hayworth’s for Tales of Manhattan (1942). But for the next five years the studios treat him as a pariah. The couple are pretty much totally reliant on Gene’s earnings, which puts the marriage under strain from the off.
Then Gene finds out that her father, “who taught me that honour was everything” and who has been acting as her agent via a company called Belle-Tier Corporation, has been siphoning off all her earnings to prop up his failing insurance business. Everything has been lost. It also turns out that her father has been having an affair with one of her mother’s friends. The close relationship between father and daughter is at an end.
In March 1943 Gene discovers that she’s expecting a baby. She decides to use her break to do some volunteer work at the Hollywood Canteen – a patriotic gesture and a good source of publicity for a rising actress.
In June, she falls ill with rubella (German Measles), with fatal consequences for her unborn child. In October, when she gives birth, prematurely, her daughter requires a complete blood transfusion. Daria is also deaf and partially blind. Oleg and Gene decide to take the little girl home with them and raise her as best they can.
A year after Daria’s birth, Gene is approached at a tennis party by a fan who smiles and asks if she recognizes her. She tells Gene she was in the women’s branch of the marines and met her at the Hollywood Canteen:
Did you happen to catch the German measles after that night? You know, I probably shouldn’t tell you this. But almost the whole camp was down with German measles. I broke quarantine to come to the Canteen to meet the stars. Everyone told me I shouldn’t, but I just had to go. And you were my favourite.
Around this time, it is becoming apparent that Daria is also fatally brain-damaged. In the end, her parents admit defeat and send her to an institution, where she will spend the rest of her life. With all the stresses and strains, their marriage is on the rocks. Oleg has an affair. The couple split up.
Gene meets and falls for future US President John F Kennedy. But when he hears that she has asked Oleg for a divorce, he tells her over lunch in New York that he can never marry her. Her response: “Bye, bye, Jack.”
Oleg and Gene are divorced in 1952, and she takes up with Prince Aly Khan, Rita Hayworth’s ex, whom she met in Argentina the previous year while making Way of a Goucho. It’s the same story as with JFK – there’s no way his family will countenance their marriage so the relationship goes nowhere.
Gene’s bouts of anxiety and depression finally come to a head in 1955 when she is working on Left Hand of God (1955) with Humphrey Bogart:
I was so ill, so far gone, that it became an effort every day not to give up. … I knew that if I got through the picture I had to get myself to a hospital. I learned later that a sister of Bogart’s had been mentally ill. He recognised the signs, went to the studio bosses and warned them I was sick and needed help. They assured him that I was a trouper, was aware how much had been invested in the film and would not let them down. They suggested that Bogart be kind and gentle. He was nothing less. His patience and understanding carried me through the film. We did not know then that he was himself terminally ill with cancer.
The studio’s response is telling and likely pretty typical. Their primary concerns are with ensuring the commercial success of their movies, hushing up inconvenient truths and providing sanitized versions of their stars’ lives for public consumption. Don’t imagine that Gene Tierney is alone in struggling with mental health issues. She’s in good company – Vivien Leigh, Rita Hayworth and Judy Garland are three other cases in point. Mental health continues to be an issue for film stars and other celebrities to this day, as revealed by an article in Marie Claire to mark World Mental Health Day 2017.
Mental health issues seem to have run in Gene’s family. In Self-Portrait, she mentions her maternal aunt in this context, so she’s likely to have been predisposed to anxiety and depression. Her autobiography begins with her nadir in the spring of 1957:
It is a terrible thing to feel no fear, no alarm, when you are standing on a window ledge fourteen stories above the street. I felt tired, lost, and numb – but unafraid. I wasn’t at all certain I wanted to take my own life. I cat-walked a few steps away from the open window and steadied myself, to think about it. The fact that I could no longer make decisions was why I had gone to the ledge in the first place. What to wear, when to get out of bed, which can of soup to buy, how to go on living, the most automatic task confused and depressed me.
Gene Tierney – a mid-20th century mental patient
Gene Tierney is courageous in speaking out about her struggles with severe bouts of depression, a taboo subject for most of the 20th century. Over a period of six years, she is admitted to three different mental hospitals and has a total of 32 electric shock treatments:
I knew nothing about electric shock therapy, and I don’t think the doctors at the time knew much more. It was then considered a scientific breakthrough, although opinion was divided about the potential for long-term harm. The treatment was developed in Italy in 1938. Doctors soon began to use it to treat schizophrenia and cases of severe depression.
An electrode was attached to each temple and an alternating current of eighty or ninety volts passed between the electrodes for a split fraction of a second. In the early days of this therapy, the moment of violent seizure often produced fractures and dislocated bones. The use of muscle relaxants solved that problem.
When it shocked its victims into some measure of sanity, it seemed to do so by inducing a temporary amnesia. It triggered a physical feeling that was comfortable and benign. You can hardly be depressed over something you no longer remember. The results often were so dramatic that helpless people could soon manage everyday things that once seemed intimidating.
But even more than electric shock treatment, Gene fears the cold pack:
To me, the cold pack was the worst indignity of my confinement. It was not meant to be cruel or inhuman or to punish you. The cold pack was simply one of the ways of rearranging your mind, of shocking you back into sanity, or so the doctors hoped. When my time came, I felt only that I had been dehumanized.
I was wrapped from the neck down in icy wet bedsheets, my arms strapped to my sides. It was like being buried in a snow bank. Tears poured down my cheeks as the minutes ticked away. I couldn’t move. I lost the feeling in my hands and feet. My mind was in a panic.
Eventually, she starts to get a grip on herself:
When I accepted my handicap, my doctors told me, “Now you are going to get well, because you know you have a weakness.” But it took me four years to face the truth. Up to then, I committed myself to treatment because I thought my family felt I should, and I told myself I was pleasing them.
Her exit interview is like something out of Kafka:
I was beginning to respond, to open up, to examine the disappointments in my life: my father, my marriage, the helplessness I felt when I had to give up Daria.
Early in August of 1958, I was told to appear before members of the medical staff for an interview. If I passed, I would be released to my family. I was dressed neatly and quietly, without jewelry, in my own clothes. I felt pale and edgy, like a young girl applying for her first job. I was applying for my freedom.
I sat behind a two-way glass. The doctors could see me, but I could not see them. I found it disconcerting, hearing these disembodied voices. My nerves were so keyed up that I remember nothing of their questions or my answers.
Gene is lucky insofar as she can afford to stay at some of the best institutions around at the time. In 1963, Richard Avedon will visit a state-run establishment – East Louisiana State Mental Institution, Jackson, Louisiana. His photos are a harrowing reminder of what it was like for less well-off individuals with mental-health problems.
In the UK, most of the old asylums have been closed down but some of the buildings survive as ruins, eloquently and evocatively documented at Abandoned Britain. All well and good, but now there’s almost nowhere to go for those who need help and many of them sleep rough on the streets.
Gene Tierney – a kind of redemption
Gene Tierney will struggle with her demons for the rest of her life. That won’t prevent her from appearing in minor roles in a handful of films during the 1960s and one movie historian will remark that:
Gene Tierney returns to the screen after 7 years absence undergoing psychiatric treatment, which probably included recovering from endless caustic comments from Bosley Crowther throughout her career. He never had a nice word for her, ever… I wonder if she just rolled her eyes at every NY Times review. Crowther just relentlessly had it in for her no matter what she did. She must have snubbed him at a party as a starlet.
In autumn 1958, she had met W Howard Lee, a Texas oilman, then about to divorce none other than Hedy Lamarr. On 11 July 1960, Gene Tierney will marry Lee in a small ceremony in Aspen. He will stick with her through her ups and her downs until his death in 1981.
Want to know more about Gene Tierney?
The two books on which this piece is based are Self-Portrait by Gene Tierney with Mickey Herskowitz and American Legends: The Life of Gene Tierney. There’s an article by Ben Maddox about Gene Tierney’s recent marriage to Oleg Cassini in the September 1941 issue of Screenland, available at the Media History Digital Library. Another article in the 29 September 1958 issue of LIFE magazine is about Gene Tierney’s return to Hollywood.
Welcome to the sixties, a decade of controversy, creativity and consumerism; effervescence, experimentation and excess; babes, boutiques and blasphemy.
At the dawn of the sixties, the economies of the US and Western Europe are booming and post-World War II austerity measures are a thing of the past. There’s an air of optimism, tempered by the ongoing Cold War, which comes to a head in October 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis – a close brush with full-scale nuclear war. But to every cloud, a silver lining, and for the movie industry the Cold War serves as inspiration for a string of films including The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Dr Strangelove (1964) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) – ironically, From Russia With Love (1963) is not really about the Cold War.
During the sixties, the ideological battle extends way beyond the borders of the Western and Communist powers. In May 1961, in response to the Soviet Union’s rapidly advancing space programme, President John F Kennedy promises to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong makes good the promise. Together with “Buzz” Aldrin, he walks around for three hours, does some experiments, picks up bits of moon dirt and rocks, plants a US flag and leaves a sign. As if in anticipation, three sci-fi movies appear the previous year: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes and Barbarella.
Both the pioneering spirit and the technological advances of the space race fuel developments during the decade. The sixties see the launch of colour television, the audiocassette and quick-drying acrylic paint. Injection-moulded plastic becomes a material of choice, not least for furniture. And the introduction of pantyhose paves the way for the miniskirt. Novelty, instant gratification, disposability, living for the day are all in.
The sixties – the younger generation
Young people are better off than ever and ready to challenge their elders and betters. They feel a new sense of identity and they’re determined to express it.
Nowhere is this more evident than in London where, in 1963, the bowler-hatted establishment is embarrassed, humiliated and thrown into disarray when Secretary of War, John Profumo, is forced to admit that he has lied to the House of Commons about an affair with Christine Keeler, an alleged call-girl. Unfortunately for him, Ms Keeler is also involved with Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché. Although Profumo assures the House that he hasn’t compromised national security, he is forced to resign and the scandal threatens to topple the Conservative government.
In 1964, Peter Laurie in an article in Vogue observes that:
London is a city of and for the young. Probably no other in the world offers us the opportunities that are here. Wherever enthusiasm, energy, iconoclasm or any kind of creative ability are needed, you’ll find people in their mid-twenties or younger.
The people making the headlines come from all sorts of backgrounds, not just from posh public schools. They include pop singers and pop artists, actors, models, hairdressers, photographers, interior decorators and designers. Think The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Hockney, Allen Jones, Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Tom Stoppard, Vidal Sassoon, David Bailey, Terence Donovan, David Hicks, Alan Fletcher and Theo Crosby. All are concerned in one way or another with “image.” Private Eye refers to this group of talented, self-confident young people as “the new aristocracy”.
The sixties – new and not-so-new attitudes
If there’s a single theme that runs right through the sixties like letters through a stick of rock it’s challenge. Traditional notions of values and morality, style and taste are up for grabs.
Taboos around sex outside marriage, under threat since at least the 1940s, are further eroded by the introduction of the contraceptive pill, which opens the door for the permissive society. As the decade goes by, nudity features more and more regularly in magazines, on stage and on screen, to howls of outrage from the likes of Mary Whitehouse and the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association in the UK. They are fighting a losing battle – as demonstrated by, for example, the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967 and a rash of movies about sex and power that are released in the early seventies.
In the US, the civil rights and anti-war movements are gathering pace. The latter, in particular, is associated with alternative lifestyles. This is the age of communes and collectives, of yoga and mysticism, of rock and roll and recreational drugs, particularly marijuana. In 1967, Marianne Faithfull, convent-educated chanteuse, single mother and girlfriend of Mick Jagger (impossible to be closer to the epicentre of swinging London), is found wearing nothing more than a fur rug by police searching for drugs at Keith Richards’ house in Sussex. Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are subsequently sentenced to three and 12 months in prison respectively.
Reactions to the scandal reveal the extent to which underlying attitudes and prejudices have and haven’t changed. The liberals in the establishment are outraged and The Times publishes a leader titled Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?”. Under pressure, the Lord Chief Justice quashes the jail terms, a decision that liberalises drug-enforcement policy going forward. But Marianne will later recall:
It destroyed me. To be a male drug addict and to act like that is always enhancing and glamorising. A woman in that situation becomes a slut and a bad mother.
The theme is referenced in Darling (1965), a British film about an ambitious girl played by Julie Christie, who is happy to sleep around, moving from one relationship to another to further her career only to get her come-uppance. It turns out that the ideal woman of the sixties is perhaps closer to her counterpart of the previous decades than would appear at first glance. As Betty Friedan observes in The Feminine Mystique (1963), the stereotype of the “ideal woman”…
…held that women could find fulfilment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love. It denied women a career or any commitment outside the home and narrowed woman’s world down to the home, cut her role back to housewife.
Nevertheless, the counter-culture is in full swing, often taking its inspiration from advertising and fast-moving consumer goods. In London, Bridget Riley is at the forefront of the Op Art movement. In the US, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg shock and amaze audiences with their Pop Art creations. Psychedelic art emerges from the drug and music sub-cultures of London and San Francisco.
In Italy, a new generation of architects and designers such as Paolo Soleri, Ettore Sotsass, Joe Colombo and Archizoom favour a more personal, expressive, even light-hearted approach. Their utopian visions will find their ultimate expression in the summer of 1972 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, Italy, The New Domestic Landscape.
In music the headline acts include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, but there are many, many others. What they all have in common is youthfulness and iconoclasm.
The sixties – from futuristic to nostalgic fashion
A new decade needs a new ideal of female beauty. Step forward Jean Shrimpton and David Bailey. She’s been brought up on a farm about 30 miles from London, he’s the son of a tailor’s cutter in the East End of London.
Bailey, together with partners-in-crime Brian Duffy and Terry Donovan, pioneers a new, raw, in-your-face, style of fashion photography characterized by strong contrasts, bold cropping and unsentimental poses. “The Black Trinity”, as Norman Parkinson, a photographer of the older generation dubs them, roam the streets of London shooting celebrities from all walks of life, most notoriously (in Bailey’s case) lethal gangsters the Kray Twins.
In fact, the photographers become celebrities in their own right, going out with actors, musicians and all manner of beautiful people. Nor is it just their photographic style that’s new. In the words of Duffy:
Before 1960, a fashion photographer was tall, thin and camp. But we three are different: short, fat and heterosexual!
Portfolio with an id of "blow-up" is not defined.
There’s no better introduction to their style, attitude and MO than Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, Blow-Up (1966).
Bailey meets Jean Shrimpton in 1960 while he is shooting for Vogue and she is working with Duffy in a nearby studio. She says: “‘Bailey’ was how he introduced himself and that was all I ever called him. We were instantly attracted to each other.” He says: “What attracted me to her was that she genuinely didn’t care how she looked. She honestly never understood what all the fuss was about. That was very attractive to me.” How very sixties!
He books her for a string of shoots (as well as a four-year relationship) and over the next few years they produce a deluge of iconic images that appear in Vogue, the Sunday supplements and other magazines. Suddenly the aristocratic hauteur of fifties fashion shoots is so passé. In its place is something younger, more energetic, more accessible, more fun, above all more overtly sexy.
Unlike the voluptuous beauties of the fifties such as Monroe, Mansfield, Dors and Sabrina, “The Shrimp” is a fresh-faced, slender girl-next-door. In her wake come a procession of waifs such as Twiggy, Jill Kennington, Penelope Tree, Patti Boyd and, at the more exotic edge of the spectrum, Veruschka, Peggy Moffitt and Donyale Luna. While the skinny, androgynous, doll-faced model dominates the decade, she coexists with her more curvaceous sister, embodied in the likes of Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch.
London designers in particular are quick to respond, creating designs for the new generation rather than expecting them to ape their parents. Mary Quant, Barbara Hulanicki, Zandra Rhodes, Marion Foale, Sally Tuffin, Bill Gibb and Ossie Clark are the new kids on the block and they are not afraid to experiment with new materials – perspex, PVC, polyester, acrylic, nylon, rayon, Spandex, even paper. Their fun, eye-catching, easy-care outfits are sold through boutiques. The most famous is Biba but many others cluster around Carnaby Street and the King’s Road.
Meanwhile, space-age fashion dominates the catwalks of Paris. André Courrèges, Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin in particular put a bomb under traditional notions of couture with their emphasis on short skirts, white boots, chain mail – clothes that can be carried off only by the jeunesse dorée.
During the first half of the decade, the direction in which fashion is moving is pretty clear: skirts are getting shorter and silhouettes boxier, with an emphasis on new materials and bold colours. Then the pendulum begins to swing from futuristic towards nostalgic. In the search for something more romantic, styles proliferate. Towards the end of the decade three different looks coexist:
- Flower-power blossoms at San Francisco’s Summer of Love in 1967 and at Woodstock two years later.
- Its close cousin, the ethnic / peasant look, is built around items such as Afghan coats, Mexican blouses and ponchos, Indian pantaloons, floor-length gipsy skirts and head scarves.
- Finally there’s the ruffles-and-ringlets look – all velvet, lace, frills and beads, taking its cues from Louis Malle’s Viva Maria! (1965), a romp set somewhere in early-20th century Latin America, where Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau get involved in various high jinks with a bunch of revolutionaries.
Want to know more about the sixties?
I embarked on this piece as a showcase for some of the sixties photos in my collection. In order to provide some context for them, I’ve highlighted various themes, events and movies. Inevitably my choices have been subjective and partial. There’s no way that this collage of words, images and video clips can do justice to the sixties. But hopefully it will give you a flavour of the era and pique your interest to find out more.
Three books from my library inspired and informed this piece:
- Sixties Design by Philippe Garner
- Antonioni’s Blow-Up by Philippe Garner and David Mellor
- In Vogue: Sixty years of celebrities and fashion from British Vogue by Georgina Howell.
The Internet is full of information about the sixties including specialist websites about specific models and movie stars, directors and films, events and designers. Just google your interest.
Tasteless, gratuitous smut or challenging cult classics? In the late-1960s and 1970s a clutch of art-house films by Italian directors found new, confrontational ways to explore the rise of fascism.
The stage was set by Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969), followed a year later by Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). 1974 saw the release of Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter and Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties, with Pier Paulo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1976) bringing down the curtain.
Sex and power – sex as a metaphor for tyranny
These are great, if controversial, films with intriguing plots, extravagant drama, superb actors, gorgeous sets and stylish costumes. But their tone is dark and pessimistic, their subject matter grim, transgressive and voyeuristic. They make for thrillingly uncomfortable viewing.
They portray the Nazi regime as evil incarnate. Against a broader historical backdrop, they chart its ascendancy and consequences for individuals, relationships and the body politic. The underlying narrative seems to run something like this…
- Capitalism is corrupt and corrupting.
- It leads inexorably to power plays, tyranny and repression at every level of society, from the family to the state.
- Along with all of this come a range of other perverse behaviours such as duplicity, betrayal and sexual deviance.
- Capitalism, tyranny and perversion create a death spiral of paranoia and destruction from which escape, let alone redemption, is all but impossible.
- This toxic cocktail finds its ultimate expression in the sado-masochistic excesses of Nazism.
The most striking characteristic of these films is that they equate sexual deviance with tyranny, or “totalitarianism”, to use a word that was much in vogue at the time. Sexual domination is a metaphor for political domination; non-heterosexual desires are a symptom of political depravity. This is troubling, not least for a contemporary audience with a less binary attitude towards sexuality.
Sex and power – products of their time
These films are palpably products of their time and in their own way feel just as dated now as the films noir of the 1940s and the musicals of the 1950s.
They emerged from a period of social and political turmoil in Italy that ran from the late-1960s to the early-1980s and was marked by a wave of left-wing and right-wing terrorist incidents. During the period, nearly 2,000 murders were attributed to political violence in the form of bombings, assassinations and street warfare between rival militant factions.
The films’ political message is rooted in the socialist / communist ideology that had gained currency (particularly in academic and artistic circles) during the 1960s and had erupted on the streets of Paris in 1968 but was increasingly questioned during the 1970s. The Nazis provide the protagonists, costumes and settings for restaging and exploring in the present the historical failure of democracy.
Bear in mind too that for many in 1970 the end of World War II was recent history, just 25 years away – the equivalent for us would be looking back at the 1990s. Visconti, Cavani, Wertmüller and Pasolini had all lived through the war (Bertolucci was born during it) and their films may well have been in part at least a way of coming to terms with events they had witnessed. At the same time a new generation was coming of age who had not themselves lived through the war and its immediate aftermath.
At the same time, the permissiveness of the 1960s had loosened the moral code and opened the door for more explicit on-screen sex, torture and other forms of bad behaviour. A parallel development was that of the giallo, a genre of Italian pulp movie nicely characterized by Cheryl Eddie for Gizmodo:
Nearly all [the films] contain gushing gore, erotic themes, a heavy emphasis on visuals (with things like script coherence often taking a back seat), questionable / campy English dubbing, characters gripped by paranoia, gorgeous women in peril, and ruthlessly brutal masked killers fond of sharp objects, rope, and black leather gloves.
Significantly, it was in the mid-1970s that Susan Sontag published a piece on Fascinating Fascism. in which she noted the renewed interest in Nazism and its eroticization. She also observed that “Courses dealing with the history of fascism are, along with those on the occult (including vampirism), among the best attended these days on college campuses.” So clearlysomething was in the air.
Perhaps these films about the rise of fascism were also a reaction to the camp frivolity churned out of Cinecittà during the latter half of the 1960s – movies like The 10th Victim (1965), Barbarella (1968) and Danger: Diabolik (1968).
Whatever the influences, this clutch of films was made possible commercially by the emergence during the 1960s of European art-house cinema as a force to be reckoned with thanks to work by the likes of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky.
Sex and power – the actresses
These films showcase the talents of some of the leading European actresses of the period. In fact a number of them keep reappearing in these and related films of the period.
Foremost among them is Charlotte Rampling, an English actress, who plays the female lead opposite Dirk Bogarde in The Night Porter as well as having an important and very different role in The Damned. She worked as a model before capturing the attention of cinemagoers with her performance in Georgy Girl (1966). She continues to appear in films (not least François Ozon’s Swimming Pool), on TV and on the stage. Outside of the movie world, she features, posing naked on a table at the Hotel Nord Pinus in Arles, in one of Helmut Newton’s most celebrated photographs.
Alongside Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Thulin is regarded by many as Sweden’s female contribution to international cinema. She was one of Ingmar Bergman’s muses and appeared in seven of his films, beginning with Wild Strawberries (1957), for which she won best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival the following year. In The Damned, she is the cold-blooded Baroness Sophie Von Essenbeck, a cross between a latter-day Lady Macbeth and Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. She also appears in Tinto Brass’s proto-Nazisploitation film, Salon Kitty (1976).
French actress Dominique Sanda was 18 years old when Bernardo Bertolucci asked her to play the part of Anna in The Conformist. The same year Vittorio De Sica cast her as Micòl Finzi Contini in his movie about the fate of a Jewish family in 1938 Italy, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970). She was subsequently recruited by Luchino Visconti for an uncredited role in Conversation Piece (1974) and again by Bertolucci to play the ill-fated Ada in 1900. She won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance in The Inheritance (1976).
Bernardo Bertolucci cast Stefania Sandrelli in the two great historical films about Italy that he made in the 1970s: The Conformist and 1900. Her breakthrough film was Divorce Italian Style (1961) – she was just 15 years old at the time. In the 1970s she worked with director Ettore Scola as well as Bernardo Bertolucci before, in the 1980s, making a name for herself as an erotic actress in Tinto Brass’s The Key (1983).
Sex and power – the reception
When these films were released, the savagery of the Nazi regime and the horrors of the Holocaust were still fresh in people’s minds, so the subject matter was always going to be controversial.
The Damned opened to worldwide acclaim and was the tenth most popular movie at the French box office in 1970. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and was named Best Foreign Film by the National Board of Review, with Helmut Berger was singled out for particular praise.
The Conformist dropped quickly from sight after rave receptions at several film festivals. It got only a very, very limited run in the US after the likes of Francis Ford Coppola urged Paramount to release it. Nor was it a big hit in Italy because it provided audiences with an uncomfortable reminder of fascism’s comparatively recent popularity. It is now something of a cult movie and regarded by many as a masterpiece.
The Night Porter provoked mixed responses. Liliana Cavani was praised by some for having the courage to deal with the theme of sexual transgression but many couldn’t accept the Holocaust setting. Elite-critic Roger Ebert was far from alone when he called it “as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering.”
Seven Beauties upset many with its graphic depiction of Nazi concentration camps as the context for a sick joke about its leading character’s survival. In spite of that, it did well in the US and was nominated for four Oscars, including best director.
Not surprisingly given its graphic portrayals of rape, torture, and murder, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom was widely regarded as obscene and banned in several countries. In some the ban remains to this day. The film has never reached a mass audience but many critics now see it as an important work and required viewing for serious cinephiles.
Sex and power – the legacy
In the political arena, the message of these movies about the Nazis failed to make an impact. By the late-1970s / early-1980s the dominant ideologies were those of the free-marketeers (as personified by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) and the anarchists (as embodied by the punks).
Perhaps for all their sensationalism these films failed to appeal to a broad enough audience. More likely, they turned out to be a late flowering of 1960s thinking, and by the time they were released the pendulum had already begun to swing in another direction.
Ironically, in the cultural / artistic arena these films ended up spawning a whole sub-genre of exploitation movies – Nazisploitation. Nazisploitation films appropriated the lavish decadence of The Damned, the psychodrama of The Night Porter or the S&M of Salò to create a sensationalist cocktail of sex and violence. The most celebrated product of the genre is Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975). But there was clearly something in the air – Love Camp 7 (1969) was released the same year as The Damned.
In mainstream cinema, the most obvious progeny of these films about the Nazis is Cabaret (1972). In stills photography, Nazi chic is implicit or explicit in the work of Helmut Newton, Chris von Wangenheim and Bob Carlos Clarke. And, by extension, is it going to too far to discern a link between these films and the broad-shouldered, power dressing that took the fashion world by storm in the late-’70s?
Want to know more about sex and power?
A good starting point is Samm Deighan’s article for Diabolique magazine: Post-War Perversion in Italian Cinema: From Visconti to Pasolini, Part One and Part Two. To go deeper, take a look at Screen Nazis: Cinema, History, and Democracy by Sabine Hake or Nazisploitation!: The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Cinema and Culture by Elizabeth Bridges.