At dinner one night years ago, a friend asked me if I’d be watching the Oscars that weekend. “She will if some old guy is getting something,” my husband replied, rolling his eyes somewhere north of the Bronx. Now, of course, they hive off my favorite part, the Lifetime Achievement awards to a smaller ceremony that’s not even televised; the statuette might as well be in the shape of the YouTube logo.
But that’s downright respectful compared to the annual middle finger known as the Oscar memorial reel.
Classic film always gets slammed especially hard—it’s not unusual for the Academy to snub actual Oscar winners (hello, Dorothy Malone!). Among the missing this year—my sixth covering this event—were Valentina Cortese, Carol Lynley, Susan Harrison, Peggy Stewart, Edith Scob, Virginia Leith, Julie Gibson, David Hedison, Robert Walker Jr., Sue Lyon, Robert Conrad, Orson Bean, Edd Byrnes, Phyllis Newman, Niall Toibin, Freddie Jones, Tadao Takashima, Richard Erdman, Allene Roberts, Dianne Foster, Fay McKenzie and Jan Merlin.
Also overlooked were Paul Koslo, Billy Drago, Jeremy Kemp, Paul Benjamin, Sid Haig, Bill Macy, Jan-Michael Vincent, Eddie Jones, Verna Bloom, Denise Nickerson, René Auberjonois, Katherine Helmond, Luke Perry, Valerie Harper, Barry Coe, Rip Taylor, Cameron Boyce, Paula Kelly, Tim Conway, Marie Laforêt, Michael J. Pollard, Susan Bernard, Tania Mallet, Nadja Regin, Joan Staley, Peggy Lipton, Ron Leibman, Georgia Engel, Caroll Spinney, Shelley Morrison, Russi Taylor, Peter Tork, Robert Axelrod, John Wesley, Arte Johnson, Max Wright, John Clarke and Chuy Bravo.
Never content to snub just one branch, they also dissed writers William Wittliff, Mardik Martin, Herman Wouk, Toni Morrison, Rocci Chatfield, Martin Charnin, Mark Medoff, Gordon Bressack, Sam Bobrick and Bernard Slade; directors Jonas Mekas, Ringo Lam, Larry Cohen, James Frawley, Dusan Makavejev and Harold Prince; composer Jerry Herman; producers Andrew Vanja, Edward Lewis, Lee Mendelson, David Weisman and Nik Powell; makeup artist Matt Rose; film executives Eric Pleskow, Gary Lemel and Nick Ludwin; editor Terry Rawlings; film historians Rudy Behlmer and Ron Hutchinson; and art director Lawrence Paull. And the fabulous Bob Dorian, host of American Movie Classics, pretty much the lone source of oxygen for old-movie fans for a full decade before TCM came on the scene (and in a typically classy move, TCM honored Dorian in its memorial reel).
And I know, there’s a longer video on the Academy website, but the whole A list/B list thing for dead people will never not be creepy. Why not devote some real time and talent to producing a lovely, inclusive tribute, the way TCM does every year? (This is the kind of thing you people do for a living, isn’t it?) And then either—gasp!—cut out a few commercials (this year they somehow had time for 69 of them running a full 40 minutes) and air it in full on the telecast, or simply post it on the website. But the hideously truncated list they slap up there during the show only infuriates everyone and disrespects those who spent their whole lives creating the kind of memories we love movies for.
Admittedly I’ve cut a wide swath here, including folks who worked less in film than in television or theater, but please comment with anyone I missed, and I’ll add them. (Keep in mind, the Oscar memorial reel doesn’t cover the calendar year; it runs from last year’s February 24 Oscar show until today.)
And if Oscar omitted someone you love, please take to Twitter to honor them, using the hashtag #MemorialSnubs.
Godspeed and oceans of gratitude to everyone we’ve lost. Especially for those of us who love classic film, this gets more heartbreaking every year.
What’s Christmastime without a gathering around the TV for Meet Me in St. Louis?
And who can forget that classic scene as the snow drifts softly past the window, and Esther (Judy Garland) comforts her little sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), who’s distraught over leaving their beloved home. Remember how Esther gently croons that she better damn well enjoy this holiday, because it may be her last happy Christmas ever?
No? Not ringing a bell? You can thank Garland and her leading man for that. Here, roughly, were Hugh Martin’s original lyrics:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas…
It may be your last!
Next year we may all be living in the past!
Have yourself a merry little Christmas…
Pop that champagne cork!
Next year we may all be living in New York!
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore!
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more!
But at least we all will be together
If the Lord allows!
From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow!
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now!
Garland was the first to approach Martin, suggesting that—however appropriate those lyrics may have been for the mood of the scene—only a stone-cold sadist would sing them to a sobbing child. “Judy said—and she was right of course—that they were too depressing!” recalled O’Brien at the 2014 TCM Film Festival screening of the film. “She told Hugh, ‘I would never say things like that to her when she’s already so upset!’”
You’d think Judy—who, even at 22, knew a thing or two about packing an emotional wallop—would’ve been able to sway Martin. But he staunchly stuck to his original lyrics, leaving the two at an impasse—and the production limping along for weeks with no Christmas song. Then Tom Drake, who played Judy’s love interest, happened upon the most foolproof solution in the world: appeal to the songwriter’s ego. “You know,” he told him, “this could be an immortal Christmas song if you weren’t so stubborn…”
That did it. So now we have this:
Oh and have you heard the popular story about how they got O’Brien to cry for that scene? At the TCM Festival, she thoroughly demolished it.
“That rumor, it’s out there everywhere—that to get me to cry, my mother told me my dog was hit by a car or something like that,” O’Brien said, rolling her wide brown eyes to the rafters of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. “Well she would never do anything like that. And anyway, what she did do was much more effective.”
It seems O’Brien and June Allyson were known around MGM as “the town criers,” thanks to their uncanny knack for sobbing on cue. But O’Brien was having such a great time making the film—and working with Garland, who took her big-sister role to heart—that in take after take, she couldn’t shed a drop. “My mother took me aside and said, ‘Now honey, don’t worry, they can just use glycerin drops if you can’t cry,” O’Brien said. “But you know, June would be able to make real tears.’ And that made me burst out crying!”
If they really wanted to see waterworks, they could have had Judy sing her the original version of the song.
And on that note, to my classic-movie family of friends,
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Pop that champagne cork…
From a girl who spent her childhood in New York!
Seeing a pristine print of a favorite film on the big screen—and then listening to one of the stars reminisce about it afterward? Now that’s a Big Night.
Last night, RogerEbert.com editor-at-large Matt Zoller Seitz presented the 1996 classic as part of his fabulous “Movies with MZS series” at the IFC Center in New York’s West Village. Normally after seeing this film, audience members scramble into the streets, starving and salivating, to the nearest Italian restaurant, or even a pizzeria if that’s the only thing handy. But this time, as the closing credits rolled, Tony Shalhoub and Seitz took the stage. And a great conversation made us forget how hungry we were.
Here are some of the many highlights:
- In the original run-throughs, with just a script at hand but no financing, Shalhoub played Pascal. But by the time they were ready to roll, they decided he and Tucci—who were good friends and close in age—should play the brothers, Primo and Secondo. Then Giancarlo Giannini was slated to play Pascal, but backed out at the last minute. (Kind of making him the real-life Louis Prima.) Far from having to settle, though, they snagged Ian Holm for the role. “I idolized him from the time I was an acting student,” Shalhoub recalled, his voice breaking up. “He was just… so great.” And now, could you picture anyone else playing Pascal?
- How did Big Night end up with two directors, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott (who also played Bob, the cheerfully relentless car salesman)? Shalhoub explained that because Tucci is in almost every shot, he wanted a second pair of eyes, and he and Scott had known each other since high school and had a great rhythm together. What was it like with two men behind the lens? “It was great,” said Shalhoub. “I felt like I had twice the help, twice the input.”
- Asked if it feels different to be guided by actors as opposed to full-time directors, Shalhoub smiled and put his hands over his heart. “Oh yes. Oh yes. They know what you’re going through. You feel safe.” But, he added, they also nudge you to get out of your comfort zone, even as they protect you. Tucci and Scott also helped him work out Primo’s feelings toward Ann (Allison Janney): Did he really have a crush on her, or was he just doing what others expected of him? Turns out yeah, he was kinda crazy about her, as was Shalhoub about his co-star: “Allison, she’s so open, she has such a big heart.”
- Shalhoub was surprised that a couple of bits of business he added on his own were kept in by Tucci, including one where the shy Primo—who, he said, “would really rather just stay in the kitchen”—climbs into the display case while picking out flowers with Ann. “Stanley said ‘That was a little cheap!’” he laughed. “But then used it!”
- You know that awkward pause in the scene where Primo can’t understand why Secondo laughs when he says “It’s raining outside”? It was genuinely awkward. One of the actors—Shalhoub couldn’t recall which—went up on his line, and you can actually see the discomfort on Tucci’s face as his eyes dart from one co-star to the other. Holm finally broke the silence with “What the fuck?”
- When it came time to master his Italian accent, Shalhoub reminded Tucci that he had a bit of a head start after playing Antonio Scarpacci on Wings for five years. “No,” Tucci drolly shot back. “Not that accent.” He ultimately had two dialogue coaches to help him nail it. Tucci, on the other hand, speaks fluent Italian. “Sometimes [when we were going back and forth] he’d start to improvise,” Shalhoub laughed. “And I’d be there like… I got nothin’.”
- Shalhoub also got some coaching with the cooking, working in restaurants on both coasts (and for years after, scoring scads of free meals from chefs who adored the film). Tucci, who wrote a family cookbook in 2012, already knew his way around the kitchen—as is clear in the film’s final, extraordinary scene, where the camera is a still, silent witness as Secondo, Cristiano (Marc Anthony) and Primo recover from the night before, and the brothers literally fall back on one another as the screen goes black. Because it’s all shot in one long take, the slightest misstep would have shattered everything. “I think we ended up getting it in about six takes,” said Shalhoub. “And Stanley, flipping those eggs, got it right every time.”
Oh and no mention of Big Night would be complete without talking about the timpano.
In the New York Times review of the film, the dish got its own sidebar, with Frank Bruni calling it “an impressive, delectable mountain of perfectly cooked pasta, tender meatballs, egg and salami, swathed in a rich ragu and folded all together in a lissome dough. It is an excavation to eat this, and one to be undertaken slowly, carefully, so as to catch every prism of flavor. The vivid compliments given to this in the film Big Night are unrepeatable here, but we are sure you’ll find some choice adjectives of your own.”
We’ll leave you here with the recipe, which includes links to the meatballs and sauce in Tucci’s cookbook. Hope you weren’t planning on doing anything else this holiday season. Mangia!
FOR THE DOUGH
- 4 cups all-purpose flour, more for dusting
- 4 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3tablespoons olive oil, more for greasing pan
FOR THE FILLING
- 4 cups 1/4-inch by 1/2-inch Genoa salami pieces, cut 1/4-inch thick
- 4 cups sharp provolone cheese chunks, about 1/4 by 1/2 inch
- 12 hard-cooked eggs, shelled and quartered lengthwise, each quarter cut in half
- 4 cups small meatballs
- 7 ½ cups Tucci ragù sauce, meat removed and reserved for another use
- 3 pounds ziti, cooked very al dente (about half the time recommended on the package) and drained
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup finely grated pecorino Romano
- 6 large eggs, beaten
- Prepare the dough: Place flour, eggs, salt and olive oil in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. (A large-capacity food processor may also be used.) Add 3 tablespoons water and process. Add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until mixture comes together and forms a ball. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead to make sure it is well mixed, about 10 minutes. Set aside to rest for 5 minutes. (The dough may be made in advance and refrigerated overnight; return to room temperature before rolling out.)
- Flatten dough on a lightly floured work surface. Dust top with flour and roll it out, dusting with flour and flipping the dough over from time to time, until it is about 1/16-inch thick and is the desired diameter. (To calculate the diameter for the dough round, add the diameter of the bottom of a heavy 6-quart baking pan, the diameter of the top of the pan and twice the height of the pan.) Grease the baking pan generously with butter and olive oil. Fold dough in half and then in half again, to form a triangle, and place in pan. Open dough and arrange it in the pan, gently pressing it against the bottom and the sides, draping extra dough over the sides. Set aside.
- Prepare the filling: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Have salami, provolone, hard-cooked eggs, meatballs and ragù sauce at room temperature. Stir 1/2 cup water into sauce to thin it. Toss pasta with olive oil and allow to cool slightly before tossing with 2 cups sauce. Distribute 4 generous cups of pasta on bottom of timpano. Top with 1 cup salami, 1 cup provolone, 3 eggs, 1 cup meatballs and 1/3 cup Romano cheese. Pour 2 cups sauce over ingredients. Repeat process to create additional layers until filling comes within 1 inch of the top of the pan, ending with 2 cups sauce. Pour beaten eggs over the filling. Fold pasta dough over filling to seal completely. Trim away and discard any double layers of dough. Make sure timpano is tightly sealed. If you notice any small openings cut a piece of trimmed dough to fit over opening. Use a small amount of water to moisten these scraps of dough to ensure that a tight seal has been made.
- Bake until lightly browned, about 1 hour. Cover with aluminum foil and continue baking until the timpano is cooked through and the dough is golden brown (and reaches an internal temperature of 120 degrees), about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 30 or more minutes to allow timpano to cool and contract before attempting to remove from pan. The baked timpano should not adhere to the pan. To test, gently shake pan to the left and then to the right. It should slightly spin in the pan. If any part is still attached, carefully detach with a knife.
- To remove timpano from pan, place a baking sheet or thin cutting board that covers the entire diameter on the pan on top of the timpano. Grasp the baking sheet or cutting board and the rim of the pan firmly and invert timpano. Remove pan and allow timpano to cool for 30 minutes. Using a long, sharp knife, cut a circle about 3 inches in diameter in the center of the timpano, making sure to cut all the way through to the bottom. Then slice timpano as you would a pie into individual portions, leaving the center circle as a support for the remaining pieces. The cut pieces should hold together, revealing built-up layers of great stuff.
You may assemble the timpano in the pan it will be baked in and freeze it. It will take three days to fully defrost in the refrigerator before it can be baked as directed.
A while back, my grandfather was taking my mother on a cruise, and trying to persuade me to come along. “You just sit back and rock, as the boat goes back and forth and back and forth,” he said, swaying and nodding his head from side to side. “It sounds great, Pop,” I blurted unconvincingly, “but please, you have to stop now!” I was getting seasick just watching him. I got queasy again at the Bon Voyage party.
Then there was the Jetfoil my husband Tim and I took from Bar Harbor to Nova Scotia. I was fine… until I wasn’t. At one point during a festive screening of The Little Mermaid on the upper deck, I suddenly felt… unwell. I barreled across the boat in frantic search of a bathroom, making it just in time. After watching in horror as everything I’d eaten since the fifth grade made a glorious comeback, I pulled myself together and swanned back to the land of the living, trying to seem calm and collected—maybe even elegant if I could pull it off! (Think Miss Davis in Now Voyager or Miss Dunne in Love Affair.) But as I settled into a lounge chair, channeling Mary Astor in Dodsworth, a deckhand leaned over and gently patted my hand. “We’re almost there,” he whispered reassuringly. Mortified, I asked if he’d seen me flying across the deck. “No,” he said, “but I see you now. And you’re green.”
When I got home, I told my doctor, who had armed me with industrial-strength drugs and dermal patches. “Those things work for guys in the Navy going across the North Sea!” she said, shocked at their spectacular failure. “There’s only one other thing I can prescribe: Stay off boats.” Which I did. For years.
Then came the TCM Classic Cruise. And I even stayed off that for years. But this time, I gave it a whirl. Along with the drugs and patches, I added ginger drops to my bag, a Seaband on one wrist, and an electronic thing on the other that’s supposed to interrupt the nausea signal to your brain by zapping the median nerve with a little Z-Z-Z every few seconds. I put it on the second-highest setting; any more voltage and I was pretty sure I’d electrocute myself.
Now it was time to settle in for five days of movies.
The schedule aboard the Disney Magic was slightly less hectic than the one you’ll find at the TCM Classic Film Festival, though there were still plenty of choices to make among 14 special presentations and 64 films, ranging from Eddie Muller-hosted noirs like The Asphalt Jungle, The Hitch-Hiker and Rififi, to screwballs such as The Lady Eve and It Happened One Night, to musicals like On the Town and Shall We Dance, to standards including Laura and Dodsworth. And like the Festival, there were no bad options.
Most of the documentaries and special events were found in the lounge; my favorite was “The First 25 Years of the Academy Awards,” complete with backstage tales and fabulous film clips, hosted by Randy Habercamp, managing director of Preservation and Foundation Programs at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Why doesn’t every classroom have cozy tables and a bar off to the side?
The rest of the films, including those with special guests Cicely Tyson, Mitzi Gaynor and Diane Ladd, aired in one of two cavernous but comfy theatres, or on the upper deck, poolside. Where I spent much of the trip.
With, among others, Fred and Ginger…
…and my movie husband Rod Taylor. (This is the scene in Sunday in New York where, imagining that the pillow was me, I got shushed for sighing at the TCM Film Festival by a woman who clearly had no pulse. Hey, laydee, I was the one who pestered them into putting the film on the program in the first place!)
The atmosphere on the cruise was less hardcore than at a regular film festival, so there was a lot more freedom to duck in or out of theatres mid-film (which is great if you’re the one doing the ducking but not so much if you’re the one being climbed over). And up at poolside, all bets were pretty much off in terms of talking; during Topper, I had to move from a prime viewing spot when a Martha Raye sound-alike and her bevy of boisterous buddies tucked into the table directly behind me.
And once, things got a bit too casual: a woman in the deckchair next to mine whipped out a can of highly stinky aerosol spritzer and proceeded to spray her entire torso, underarms and all. When I looked up from my book, startled and half-gagging, she snapped, “It’s deodorant! Don’t you wear deodorant?” I said, um, yeah, but I don’t put it on in public. “We’re not in public!” she informed me. “We’re on a boat!”
Ah but then there was… the food. Oh my God the food. Everywhere, all the time. Buffets round the clock. Dessert stations. A pizza, burger and hot dog stand. Unlimited popcorn at screenings. And a soft-serve machine with old-fashioned cones. You know you’re on a cruise when your roommate jumps up in the middle of breakfast and says, “You want some ice cream? Cause I’m gonna go get some!”
Oh and the four-course dinners every night, with the same fabulous staff taking care of us. Our headwaiter Walter took his duties so seriously that one day when I was up at poolside—nowhere near dinnertime and six decks above the dining room—I turned to find him behind me, offering a Coke. And then a little while later appearing at my table, seemingly out of nowhere, with another one. I was almost relieved when the movie ended and I was heading out, as 12 years of Catholic school would have made me feel too guilty to be served another soda.
I had no problem eating, well, everything, since after a shaky first night, I did okay with the whole boat thing. But a touch of claustrophobia kicked in after a couple of days.
Me, calling Tim: “I’m having a great time, there’s just one thing though. Sometimes I have kind of a closed-in feeling. I can’t explain it… it’s like I’m trapped on a boat.”
Tim: “Yeah, ummm…”
Luckily we were just about pulling into Bermuda by then. I felt a twinge of guilt about swilling a mango daiquiri beachside on a random Thursday, when everyone back home was working. It lasted about as long as it took me to bite the maraschino cherry off the stem.
“Some people just stay on the boat the whole time and keep watching movies,” a veteran cruise-goer told me. Which seemed silly. Until the second day we were dockside, when I did the same thing for a slate of Halloween films. Val Lewton (Cat People), Buster Keaton (The Haunted House), Boris Karloff (The Mummy) and Lon Chaney Jr. (House of Frankenstein) were whispering my name.
As if on cue, day turned to dark and stormy night during The Haunted House, but nothing could budge me from my Buster.
And just in time for sweet dreams, House of Frankenstein—also featuring Dracula and the Wolfman—wrapped up at around midnight, when we all unbundled from our deck blankets and trundled off to bed. (Or to the bar on Deck 3.)
In fact all the late-night poolside showings were a bit nippy, which deterred… no one. Not with fleece and cocktails and hot chocolate handy. Though on the final night, when they showed Sullivan’s Travels, I had swathed myself in blankets so thoroughly I didn’t even budge for a drink…
…warming up only when Joel pours his heart out to Jimmy Conlin. Oh and whips his shirt off.
Cold as it was that night, I was reluctant to shed my blankets and head down to my warm stateroom, knowing this was the last film of the trip.
Before dawn the next morning, as we pulled into port, I strolled around the still-damp upper deck, where so many movies had gone by so quickly in the days before. Strains of Gershwin wafted through the air as I gazed out on the city I love—a little disappointed, though, to be back so soon. Almost a week had flown by in under a minute.
I popped into the coffee shop where Colin had made my coconut lattes all week. Where were they off to next, I asked? The Caribbean. And here I was heading into drizzly Manhattan. He skipped the usual Disney characters that had topped the foam in my drinks all week—which I always felt guilty about smooshing into oblivion on the first sip—and gave me a little going-away present.
Thank you Colin, thank you Walter and the crew, and thank you TCM, for this Sullivan girl’s lovely travels.
When I was 18, I tried to take my own life. I was saved when my roommate suddenly realized, about a half-hour down the 110 Freeway, that she’d forgotten her birth control, and came back to retrieve it. (And if you ever need to cite an example of the bizarre twists and turns a life can take, feel free to use me as Exhibit A.)
Two years earlier, I had lost my Dad, who was my kindred spirit, my best friend and my . protector. After he was gone, everything and everyone reminded me of him. Even the muscle memory of walking up the steps to our house was too much to bear, knowing he wouldn’t be on the other side of the door. And with a drunken, violent sister just down the hall, home became much less safe, and really no home at all, without him. After she tried to smother me in my sleep, I’d taken to pushing my dresser, which had been my grandmother’s, up against my door before I went to bed, thanking God the whole time that old furniture was so fecking heavy.
So when it came time to go to college, I went as far away as I could without leaving the mainland: from New York to Los Angeles. But I was no less lonely or miserable there, and somehow, as the fervent hope of a new start congealed to despair, things got much worse.
Despair. That’s the thing. That’s the rancid kernel at the heart of depression that blots out hope like a total eclipse, that pours its poison in your ear, telling you that things will never get better, that people will be better off without you or maybe not even miss you at all. It’s the thief in the night that you must fight to keep on the other side of the door, for what it wants to steal is your life. And it’s an imposter—but a deadly convincing one.
What does any of this have to do with classic film, you’re wondering? A close look at my Twitter timeline tells me that a lot of my old-movie friends are struggling with depression, ranging from the blues, to misery over the state of the country, to “I don’t want to be here any more.”
Those of us who love old movies tend to be a sensitive, dreamy lot, yearning for wonderful people we’ll never know. Just being immersed in a world of souls who are long gone can send an undercurrent of simmering sadness even through comedies.
I’ve probably seen The More the Merrier forty times, each time wishing I could be back there on that happy set with them, or that they could be on the sofa watching with me. And there’s something about seeing an old movie starring someone who’s still out there in the world that makes me so happy I sometimes burst into tears. I used to watch Lauren Bacall movies on TCM, wondering if she were watching too, at home in The Dakota. And during every one of my hundred or so viewings of Sunday in New York, I’d think about Rod Taylor, still working hard and being fabulous, out in California.
But then, when they go, it’s so very hard.
And when depression—over anything—deepens to despair, it’s dangerous. In It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart gives us some of the most visceral moments of despair ever set to film. And I think more people identify with him in those scenes than would openly acknowledge, because there’s still such a stigma, not only around mental health issues, but around not being happy all the time. (I’m pretty sure we’re also the only culture that pushes the ridiculous notion of “closure” after losing someone we love.)
So I guess my reason for writing this is to let my old-movie friends know they’re not alone. I had a whole bunch of things I was supposed to do today but I dropped them because I just felt I needed to say that. So much of social media is looking at other people’s highlight reels and feeling crappy by comparison. There is no shame in feeling depressed, or in struggling with mental health problems. Please, please, if you need help, get it. And if you see others who need help, reach out. Let’s all be one another’s Clarence the Angel until the real thing comes along.
If you need help, here are hotline numbers around the world:
Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in WWII Reveals Entirely New Facets of Her Life, Including Her Work as a Resistance Fighter
Ah, there’s the Audrey we love—light and breezy, cycling around the set of Sabrina in capri pants and a ponytail.
But a scant eight years earlier, an Audrey we’ll grow to love even more was cycling through the darkened streets of her Nazi-occupied city, entrusted with urgent missives of the Dutch Resistance printed on sheets no bigger than paper napkins: “I stuffed them in my woolen socks in my wooden shoes, got on my bike and delivered them.”
This is the girl we meet in Robert Matzen’s extraordinary and deeply moving new book, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in WWII (GoodKnight Books, 2019), gleaned from exhaustive research that includes family diaries, Dutch archival records, Audrey’s own recollections, and interviews with villagers who knew her during the war. It also features photographs from her personal collection, published for the first time.
Audrey didn’t come by her anti-Nazi fervor naturally: both her parents were fiercely pro-fascist. Her father, Joseph Ruston, peddled Nazi propaganda so hard that he wound up on the radar of British intelligence. And her mother, the Baroness Ella Van Heemstra, penned articles praising the Führer (“Well may Adolf Hitler be proud of the rebirth of this great country and of the rejuvenation of the German spirit!”)—and treasured the moment he kissed her hand during a personal audience in Munich.
Ruston abandoned his family when Adriaanjte (“little Audrey”) was only six—opening a wound that would never fully heal. (“I think it is hard sometimes for children who are dumped,” she recalled decades later, the pain still palpable. “I don’t care who they are. It tortures a child beyond measure. They don’t know what the problem was.”) Also undone by the sudden shock, Ella shuttled her two sons off to a boarding school in The Hague and Audrey to another near Dover, England, where she found refuge in music and dance. (“I fell in love with dancing,” she said later. “There was a young dancer who would come up from London once a week and give ballet lessons. I loved it, just loved it.”)
But in 1939, as the Nazis blighted ever more of Europe, the baroness, who had moved from Belgium to the Netherlands to be closer to family, reclaimed her children to a land she thought was safe. Astonishingly, she still trusted Hitler, and believed he wouldn’t invade a country that Germany had deemed off-limits during the Great War.
Ten-year-old Audrey made it safely out of England not a moment too soon. “There were still a few Dutch planes allowed to fly,” she later recalled. “They put me on this bright orange plane. You know, orange is the national color and it flew very low. It was really one of the last planes out.”
Ella’s peculiar trust in the Führer proved short-lived, as the Nazis invaded the Netherlands the following spring. “We saw the grey uniforms of the German soldiers on foot,” Audrey would remember. “They all held machine guns and marched in looking spick and span and disciplined… then came the rumble of trucks… and the next thing we knew they had taken complete charge of the town.”
In Holland, she continued to find solace in the rigors of ballet, enrolling in a music school run by a celebrated local instructor. And she found warmth and comfort with her Uncle Otto and his wife Wilhelmina, who gave her the affection her mother brusquely withheld.
Even in the early years of the occupation, Ella remained on friendly terms with influential local Nazis, which helped her maintain a prominent—and to her, still important—role in the town’s cultural affairs. But she finally relented when the war took a monstrously personal toll.
In May 1942, Otto was one of hundreds rounded up, arrested and imprisoned for the acts of resistance across the Netherlands. Four months later, when critical a rail line was sabotaged, he was one of five hostages dragged from their beds and driven to the middle of a remote forest. There, they were forced to dig their own graves through the night, and executed by firing squad at dawn the next morning. Grief-stricken and terrified, Audrey’s family fled to Velp, where her grandfather lived.
After years of study which helped keep her sane, Audrey had become Arnhem’s most prominent young ballerina, grudgingly giving her first public performance in July 1941 for an audience of Nazi soldiers. But the heartbreak of losing her beloved uncle hardened her even further against the brutal occupiers—and soon, she would turn her talents to aiding the Resistance movement that Otto had given his life for. She started performing at secret, invitation-only fundraisers called zwarte avonden (black evenings), so named because the windows were blacked out to avoid Nazi detection. “Guards were posted outside to let us know when Germans approached,” Hepburn later recalled. “The best audiences I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performance.”
In the summer of 1944, a family friend introduced Audrey to Dr. Hendrik Visser ’t Hooft, whose hospital was the center of the local Resistance, where doctors and staff forged identity papers and set up communications with the Allies. Audrey helped treat the wounded during the bloody, protracted Battle of Arnhem, and, because she spoke fluent English, carried messages to downed American and British fliers, telling them where they might find food and safe haven.
One English pilot who was shot down found shelter with the Hepburns, who hid him until he could make his escape. “My mother told me it was thrilling for her—it was risky, he was a stranger in uniform, a savior, and therefore a knight and hero,” her son, Luca Dotti, recalls in Dutch Girl. “Then I learned about the German law that if you were caught hiding an enemy, the whole family would be taken away.”
Partly as a form of cruel vengeance against a people who clearly despised and resisted them, the Nazis began withholding food, fuel, coal, and other vital supplies; even water was in short supply. During the “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45, thousands succumbed to intense cold and starvation, while many who survived, including Audrey, suffered extreme malnutrition. She went for days at a time without eating, and meals, when they could be cobbled together, usually consisted of a potato or a slice of bread—often made from ground tulip bulbs—and a thin broth.
Finally in April 1945, Canadian forces, bearing gifts of cigarettes and candy bars, forced the last Nazis out of Velp. And Audrey celebrated by gorging on chocolate until she was too sick to eat any more.
Dutch Girl is Matzen’s third volume covering the war years of classic Hollywood stars, following Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 and Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. I love all three, not only for the meticulous research he devotes to them—by now he’s practically a grizzled war veteran himself—but because he pushes past the ordinary celebrity portraits to reveal aspects of their lives and characters we’d never known before.
In the case of Audrey Hepburn, this is especially welcome. It always bothers me when she’s portrayed merely as a meringue confection or style icon, when there was so much underneath, so much more going on behind her eyes. Now, thanks to Matzen’s book, we know what some of that was.
The horrors she witnessed, and those that shattered her family first-hand, would have hardened a lot people, or perhaps instilled a sense of entitlement. Audrey had literally looked pure evil in the face, and God knows she’d earned a safe, secure haven to hide away in. Instead, she reached out to a world still in pain, still battling hunger and disease, war and injustice. She could have looked away. With all her heart, she didn’t.
From almost the moment she gained a public platform, Audrey used it for good, urging the world to Look. See. Help. The phrase “worked tirelessly” is tossed around a lot, but she did—for the Red Cross and as an ambassador for UNICEF. All over the world, wherever a light needed to be shown. At fundraisers, she sometimes gave readings from the diary of Anne Frank, who was born the same year and whose family had also fled to Holland in a frantic search for safety, to find it only briefly. She knew many passages by heart.
“The war was very, very important to her,” says Dotti in Dutch Girl. “It made her who she was.” Or, just maybe, it revealed who Adriaantje was all along, from the very beginning.
Katharine Hepburn. Even when she insulted you, something good came out of it.
Back in the 1970s, Kate befriended a young Manhattan neighbor at the urgent request of her father. It seems the girl was threatening to drop out of Bryn Mawr, Kate’s alma mater, and her frantic dad wrote to Kate—whom he’d seen but never met—to talk some good old New England sense into the child. (Needless to say, she did, over tea.) The four-time Oscar winner and the family soon became friendly, and years later, when Kate was injured in a car accident, the father dropped by with a batch of home-made brownies.
Miss Hepburn was not amused.
Oh, sure, she was grateful for the gesture, but she balked at the brownies: “Too much flour! And don’t overbake them! They should be moist, not cakey.” Then she rattled off her own recipe by heart, while her chastened guest took notes.
Here are Kate’s brownies, which, as you might expect, are pretty much perfect. They’re loaded with nuts, and the liquid-to-flour ratio gives them an extremely high Gooey Factor, which all good brownies should have. (Whenever I see a recipe with the line, “for cakier brownies…” I don’t even finish the sentence. If you want cakey, bake a freaking cake.)
KATHARINE HEPBURN’S BROWNIES
1 stick butter
1/2 cup cocoa
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1 cup walnuts or pecans, broken into pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla
A pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Melt the butter in a saucepan with the cocoa and stir until smooth, being careful not to overcook. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes. Gently fold in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the sugar, flour, nuts, vanilla and salt. Pour into a greased 8×8 pan. Bake 35-40 minutes; check with a toothpick after 35. They should still be gooey when they’re done. Let cool (a must!) before slicing.
Enjoy! And don’t look now but you’ve got a little chocolate on your chin…
Happy Birthday, Audrey Hepburn!
This extraordinary woman was born 90 years ago today, and to celebrate, we’re launching Audrey at 90: The Salute to Audrey Hepburn Blogathon! A heartfelt thank-you to all the writers helping us explore so many aspects of her amazing life.
And we’re so honored to welcome a very special guest —Audrey’s son, Luca Dotti, author of the New York Times bestsellers Audrey at Home: Memories of My Mother’s Kitchen and Audrey in Rome. “I’m touched and delighted that so many writers are celebrating my mother’s 90th birthday,” he told us. “I look forward to reading the variety of topics on her films and her life which are covered here.” Luca also wrote the moving and insightful foreword to Robert Matzen’s brand-new book, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in World War II, an incredible story beautifully told—which will leave you even more in awe of Audrey.
Three lucky participants will win a copy! On May 8, we’ll draw the names and notify the winners.
I’ll be writing about this fascinating book, and the author will be sharing his thoughts on what it was like to spend so much time “with” Audrey, compared with his other stellar subjects, including James Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn and Carole Lombard.
So without further ado, let’s get this party started!
The event runs from May 4 to May 7, so be sure to check back often for the latest entries as we add live links. And if you’re participating, just grab one of the banners at the bottom and link back to the blogathon in your article.
Here’s the list of topics:
Sister Celluloid: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in WWII
Robert Matzen: Spending time “with” Audrey as a subject, compared with other stars
Moon in Gemini: The Nun’s Story
Poppity Talks Classic Film: The Unforgiven
Diary of a Movie Maniac: Bloodline and Love Among Thieves
The Story Enthusiast: Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn by Donald Spoto
Caftan Woman: Charade
Realweegiemidget Reviews: Robin and Marian
Three Enchanting Ladies: Funny Face
The Stop Button: Secret People
Love Letters to Old Hollywood: Love in the Afternoon
The Midnite Drive-In: The Children’s Hour
MovieMovieBlogBlog: My Fair Lady
Popcorn and Flickers: How Audrey Met Givenchy
Stars and Letters: Cher’s Letter to Audrey
Maddy Loves Her Classic Films: A Salute to Audrey
Thoughts All Sorts: Roman Holiday
The Pale Writer: Audrey’s early career and How to Steal a Million
Champagne for Lunch: The Nun’s Story and Robin and Marian
Critica Retro: Paris When It Sizzles
Cinematic Scribblings: Two for the Road
Welcome to an April-foolish Monday edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, where we embed free films for you to watch right here!
From 1969, it’s Stuart Rosenberg’s The April Fools.
We first meet Howard Brubaker (Jack Lemmon)—newly promoted to a corner office on Wall Street—as he awkwardly elbows his way through a shady parade of partygoers who look like Holly Golightly’s hangers-on eight years down the line. But then—literally across a crowded room—he spots Catherine (Catherine Deneuve), also in need of rescue, and together they flee into the warm city night.
After an awkward outing at a jungle-themed cafe and the obligatory bout of gyrating at a groovy ’60s club, they come to the aid of Grace (Myrna Loy, luscious in a sherbet-colored caftan), a grande dame in distress whose chauffeur is too sloshed to drive her home. To her castle. Where husband Charles Boyer awaits. (Wait, is this still the movie, or one of those old-Hollywood fever dreams I sometimes fall into after a couple-too-many glasses of sherry?) Grace draws Catherine into a tarot card reading as a roundabout way of advising her to hang onto Howard and give her husband the air.
Oh yes did I mention both Howard and Catherine are married to other people? But they’re fed up with their social-climbing spouses and tired of the pretext they’re forced to keep up… you get the feeling that before they met, they were too beaten down to even realize how miserable they were. After finding Catherine, Howard tells his best friend, “All my life I’ve been tense and I never knew it.” Yes. That feeling where you’d grown so used to the pain you were barely aware of it any more—until someone came along and made it go away.
Shirley MacLaine was originally set to play Catherine, but bowed out to make Sweet Charity and barnstorm for Bobby Kennedy for President. (His brother-in-law Peter Lawford stayed on in the film, as Catherine’s husband.) And as adorable as a Lemmon-MacLaine reunion might have been, Deneuve, who can express pain and weariness with the slightest shift of her brow, gets the mood just right. And her cool grace plays perfectly off her co-star’s essential Jack Lemmon-ness.
So on this April Fools Day, what do I wish most for you? That you find someone who looks at you the way Jack Lemmon looks at Catherine Deneuve. Or the way he looked at Shirley MacLaine. Or even the way he looked at Walter Matthau. Honest to God, no one has ever poured more pure, unabashed how-did-I-ever-get-so-lucky love into a single gaze.
STREAMING SATURDAYS is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, bringing you free, fabulous films! You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?
There’s a certain luminous quality that shines through when a director is in love with his leading lady. In Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman, starring Barbara Stanwyck, it’s all over the screen.
This was the second film for these kindred spirits—whose relationship got off to such a rocky start, the real miracle is that they ended up working together at all.
In 1930, as Capra prepared to shoot Ladies of Leisure, he got an urgent call from Columbia boss Harry Cohn.
“He asked me to talk to an ex-chorus girl who made a hit in a stage play called Burlesque,” Capra recalled in his memoir, The Name Above the Title. “He had a hunch about her. I was annoyed. I had a girl already set.
“She came into my office sullen, plainly dressed, no makeup,” he went on. “Obviously hating the whole idea of the interview, she sat on the edge of her chair and answered in curt monosyllables. I didn’t want her before she came in, and what I saw of this drip made me sure of it. After about thirty seconds of the usual inane questions… she jumped to her feet and and snapped, ‘Oh, hell, you don’t want any part of me,’ and she ran out. I phoned Cohn. ‘Harry, forget Stanwyck. She’s not an actress. She’s a porcupine.'”
When Stanwyck came home in tears, her husband, comedian Frank Fay, called Capra in a rage. According to the director, it went something like this:
“Look, fella, what the hell did you do to my wife?”
“Do to her? I couldn’t even talk to her!”
“Well she came home crying and upset. No one can do that to my wife!”
“Listen, funny man, I don’t want any part of your wife, or of you. She came in here with a chip on her shoulder, and she went out with an axe on it.”
Fay chalked Stanwyck’s defensiveness up to nerves and urged Capra to view a brief screen test she’d made for The Noose, for Alexander Korda over at Warner Bros. The director reluctantly agreed to spare the three minutes.
“The test flashed on the screen. Nothing in the world was going to make me like it,” Capra recalled. “After only thirty seconds I got a lump in my throat as big as an egg… never had I heard or seen such emotional sincerity. When it was over, I had tears in my eyes. I was stunned.”
Capra bolted from the screening room to call Cohn:
“Harry! Harry! We’ve got to sign Stanwyck for the part…”
“What’re you, nuts? A half-hour ago you told me she was a kook!”
“Yeah, yeah but I just saw a test of her—she’ll be terrific… don’t let her get away.”
Within the hour, Stanwyck was signed for Ladies of Leisure. But it was her next project with Capra, The Miracle Woman, that’s probably the biggest sleeper of his long and legendary career.
Based on the play Bless You, Sister by Robert Riskin and John Meehan—with generous dollops of inspiration from the notorious evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson—The Miracle Woman centers on Florence Fallon (Stanwyck), whose father, a preacher, has been shunted aside by his congregation for a younger man.
On the morning he’s to deliver his final sermon, Florence takes to the pulpit to announce he’s just died in her arms—and delivers a blistering diatribe of her own: “You killed him! For thirty years, he tried to touch your stony hearts with the mercies of God—and failed. Why? Because you don’t want God!” As she starts to single out the churchgoers for their sins and hypocrisies—drinking, carousing, the usual stuff—they scurry from their pews toward the exits.
It’s the kind of scene that usually caps off a movie rather than opening one—but Stanwyck is just getting started. And so is Florence: one of the few people who doesn’t flee the church is Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy), a local huckster who tells her how she can “get famous, get rich, and get even.”
“Religion is like anything else,” he purrs, sidling in closer. “It’s great if you can sell it, no good if you give it away.” The two team up for a traveling tent show called the Temple of Happiness, complete with fire, brimstone and “miracles”—designed to bring desperate people closer to God and further away from their money.
One day, as Florence promotes the show on a local radio station, she actually saves someone. John Carson (David Manners), a flier who was blinded in the Great War, has just had the latest in a long line of rejections from music publishers sending back his songs. He’s mailed them off to every company in the phone book, from A to Z. “Where do you go after Z?” he despairs. His answer: to the window. But just before he’s set to jump, he hears Florence’s voice from an apartment across the courtyard: “What did God give man the backbone for? To stand up on his own two feet! Beethoven wrote his greatest symphonies after he went deaf… God can forgive a sinner, but not a quitter!”
John backs away from the ledge as if struck in the face, and shows up at the tent show that night—even taking to the stage to help Florence re-enact the parable of Daniel in the lion’s den. (With real lions. In these days before process screen photography, the only thing separating the actors from the animals was a thin piece of netting. “I could smell their breath,” recalled Manners, but I’m guessing the poor lions were even more miserable than he was.)
John is thrilled when Florence follows up their first meeting with several visits to his dingy little flat—but he’s nervous and awkward, falling back on sleight-of-hand card tricks to entertain her. To express his growing affection, he even hides behind his wooden dummy, who confides, “He keeps me locked up until he gets in a jam and then he hauls me out.”
(Yes, he does card tricks and a ventriloquist act. Somebody shoot me. But in the hands of David Manners, it’s touching and charming.)
Florence is falling hard too, and the more time she spends with John, the dirtier she feels onstage as a “miracle woman.” His tenderness and trust wear down her bitterness until she can no longer tolerate the fraud she’s neck-deep in—but she can’t seem to pull herself out either. “I don’t know how to play on the level any more,” she confesses to John. “And God wouldn’t believe me under oath.”
Determined to restore Florence’s faith in herself, John pulls some gallant fakery of his own—and even though she sees through it, she’s inspired enough to give up the grift, whatever the consequences. Much as she leapt to the pulpit of her father’s church, she takes to the stage and tells the gathered faithful a few truths they don’t want to hear. The results are shattering.
Capra said The Miracle Woman failed to follow his intended vision of “one woman’s life in three acts: disillusion, venality, conversion.” Credit Stanwyck with that “failure”: nothing is ever that cut-and-dried with her. Even at her most “venal,” a conscience is beating beneath—and when she regains her faith, it’s with a wariness that never completely melts away.
As Capra quickly discovered, much of Stanwyck’s power came from throwing everything she had into her first take—whether the cameras were rolling or not. “All subsequent repetitions, in rehearsals or retakes, were pale copies of her original performance,” he recalled. To harness that raw emotion rather than squander it on prep work, “I had to rehearse the rest of the cast without her, work out the physical movements without her.
“And the crews had problems,” Capra explained. “I had to take the ‘heart’ of the scene—the vital close-ups of Barbara—first, and with multiple cameras so she would only have to do it once.” He would go over the scene in the dressing room with his star, working through the emotions while never allowing her to act anything out. Then, as she stepped onto the soundstage, he’d gently remind her: “No matter what the other actors do, whether they stop or blow their lines—you continue your scene right to the end.” He marveled that “she remembered every word I said—and she never blew a line.”
Capra and Stanwyck would go on to make three more films together: the melodrama Forbidden, the wildly underrated The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and the classic Meet John Doe.
“Underneath her sullen shyness smoldered the emotional fires of a young Duse, or a Bernhardt,” Capra recalled in his memoir, still thunderstruck decades later. “Naive, unsophisticated, caring nothing about makeup, clothes or hairdos, the chorus girl could grab your heart and tear it to pieces. She knew nothing about camera tricks, how to ‘cheat’ her looks so her face could be seen, how to restrict her body movements in close shots. She just turned it on—and everything else on stage stopped.
“It’s true that directors often fall in love with their leading ladies—at least while making a film together,” he admitted. “I fell in love with Stanwyck, and had I not been more in love with Lucille Reyburn I would have asked Barbara to marry me after she called it quits with Frank Fay.”
When she accepted her Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1987, a radiant Stanwyck said the time she spent with Capra was the key to everything that came after. “Frank Capra… taught me what film was all about and what film could do for me and what I could do for film… each day was a learning process and it was wonderful… that’s why I’m here tonight—Mr. Frank Capra.”
A typically modest assessment of her own power onscreen, which a gifted director felt instantly, honored reverently, and harnessed brilliantly.