Category Archives: Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Backlots Up for Three 2018 CMBA Awards

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Each year in September, the Classic Movie Blog Association gives out awards for standout classic movie writing online during the past year. I’m happy to say that this year, Backlots is nominated for three CMBA awards–one for “Standing Up for What’s Right: The Friendship of Grace Kelly and Josephine Baker,” “Judy Holliday and the Hollywood Blacklist: Testimony to SISS, 1952” and the series on the Olivia de Havilland case against FX. I’m thrilled that Backlots is nominated alongside some of my favorite classic movie blogs, including The Lady Eve’s Reel Life and the fascinating Critica Retro, a Brazilian blog written in Portuguese.

The CMBA Awards are a great way to bring the classic film community together. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of what everyone is writing from day to day, but every year when the award nominations come out, I love reading the other entries and gaining insight into what the stellar classic film bloggers in the CMBA have been thinking about this past year.

Backlots has won the award a few times before–in 2011 “The Final Scene of The Heiress” won in the category of Best Classic Film Discussion, in 2012 Backlots won for Best Blog Design, and in 2013 “A Q&A With Joan Fontaine In Honor of Her 96th Birthday” won in the category of Best Profile of a Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker. I am encouraged in my writing by all your wonderful comments, and by all your support over the past 7 years of Backlots’ existence.

Thank you for your continued engagement and readership!

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Olivia de Havilland Case Will be Filed With Supreme Court Within the Next Week

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Hello dear readers, the month of September seemed to whiz by so quickly that Backlots went without an update. But here we are at the beginning of October and I’m here to report that we have movement on the Olivia de Havilland case. De Havilland’s lawyer, Suzelle Smith, has informed me that the petition will be filed with the Supreme Court in the next 7 days–probably Friday or Monday.

The reason for the delay (the petition was originally to be filed in September) is the fact that the Supreme Court asks for 40 copies of the brief and the appendix, all bound. This is a massive undertaking, and Smith is working diligently to meet the demands of submitting to the highest court in the country.

This naturally segues into the elephant in the room–if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court, what will this mean for de Havilland’s case? The main takeaway is that Kavanaugh has tended to lean on the side of corporate interests. Not only is FX a big and powerful company, but it has the backing, financial and otherwise, of other big and powerful companies. De Havilland’s case is one of a private citizen versus staggering amounts of corporate money. Based on Kavanaugh’s judicial record on corporations alone (and not even taking into account the other issues that may factor into his decision-making), Kavanaugh would tip the scales against de Havilland, should the Supreme Court decide to take the case.

I will keep you posted as I hear more from Suzelle Smith, and I will update with what seem to be Olivia’s chances with the court after the final Senate vote on Kavanaugh.

Talk to you soon!

Olivia de Havilland Case Headed to the Supreme Court

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Armed with the rejection of the California Supreme Court in her case against FX, Olivia de Havilland is to file her case with the United States Supreme Court this September.

This is a huge undertaking, and while the SCOTUS only takes a small fraction of the thousands of cases filed with them every year, this one may be of special interest to them–it would be only the second right of publicity case ever filed with the court, and would seek to clarify the case of New York Times v Sullivan. That case established the standard of “actual malice” (publishing of information that is knowingly false or with reckless disregard for truth), and said that newspapers could not be sued for libel unless they had actual malice. Lawyer Suzelle Smith says “The issue for the SCOTUS is whether or not the First Amendment creates an absolute immunity from suit for publishers of docudramas or whether that format like all others is governed by the actual malice of New York Times v Sullivan.”

I have been following de Havilland’s suit closely since the beginning, and was a member of the press at the appellate court hearing in March. If the Supreme Court takes the case, I will go to Washington, D.C. and hear it. Backlots’ readers have been extremely interested in this suit and helped to set a record for the number of amicus letters sent in support of a case at the California Supreme Court (a whopping 90 letters). It has meant so much to me and I know it means a lot to Olivia and her legal team.

While the US Supreme Court does not accept amicus letters, Suzelle Smith tells me that the best thing that Backlots readers can do right now would be to go to the article where the filing was originally reported and leave supportive comments in the comment section. Here is the article, and I will continue to keep you posted as things progress.

On behalf of everyone involved, thank you for all you have done, and continue to do, to preserve integrity in docudramas dealing with living people.

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Remembering Mary Carlisle, 1914-2018

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This morning while checking in with mutual friends, I was sad to hear that Mary Carlisle, one of the last remaining stars of the 1930s, died today at the age of 104. She lived at the Motion Picture & Television Fund home in Woodland Hills, and to her very last days loved receiving guests of every stripe in her modest living room, decorated wall-to-wall with posters of her movies. I was lucky to be one of those guests 4 years ago, as I was just beginning work on my Marion Davies book. I met her for lunch at her home to interview her.

Mary was in a unique position to tell me about Marion Davies. Having begun her career in 1930 at MGM, Mary was frequently on the lot with Marion and Hearst, befriending both immediately. Soon, she was an inextricable part of the Hearst-Davies circle. Mary attended parties at Marion’s Beach House, struck up a quasi-romance with Hearst’s son David (at Hearst’s encouragement), and, most notably, ventured across Europe with the Hearst-Davies party in 1936. By the time I met her, Mary was the sole remaining person who knew Marion Davies while she was still working.

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Mary Carlisle (right) and Marion Davies sing together on the trip to Europe, 1936.

As I walked into her home and was introduced to Mary, I was struck by a presence that dominated the room. She was a small woman, but had a countenance about her that was larger than life. She warmed to me quickly, taking my arm in hers and sitting me down on the couch. She still walked very well, and spoke with the articulated, elegant diction of classic Hollywood. “Now, I’m 100 years old,” she told me in an authoritative voice, “but I’m not sick. I can shimmy…” (here she demonstrates a shimmy) “…and I can kick!” (she kicks her leg up in the air) She told me that she liked the sound of my voice, and her charm was palpable.

We sat down for lunch and continued talking about life. Mary asked me about my family and expressed sadness that I didn’t live with my parents. She was worried that I didn’t have a boyfriend and lived by myself, thinking that I must have been lonely. Quite the opposite, I assured her, I like living this way. She recounted that she always lived with her mother and encouraged me to spend more time with my family. It was a lovely conversation and it was a good hour before we got onto the subject of Marion Davies. When we did, she told me some wonderful stories.

Mary knew the truth about classic Hollywood and stood up for it. At one point, I said something that made her think my opinion was that Hearst didn’t love Marion. “Oh, that is asinine,” she exclaimed. “Saying that Mr. Hearst didn’t love Marion?” I quickly clarified my position and was back in her good graces, but I learned in that moment that one does not cross Mary Carlisle. She knew what she knew, and erroneous statements about her era were to be brutally obliterated. This firmness, I believe, is part of what it took to survive as a woman in classic Hollywood. Other long-lived women from the Golden Age of Hollywood–Olivia de Havilland and Maureen O’Hara, to name two–have demonstrated the same strength of character and what de Havilland calls “passion for accuracy.” It’s difficult to say whether their experiences in Hollywood fostered this quality or whether they were wired that way to begin with (probably a combination of the two), but it’s a trait that seems to be shared among female stars who live into their 90’s and 100’s.

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After lunch, Mary showed me her scrapbooks. She had been in Grand Hotel in 1932, the same year she was selected as a WAMPAS Baby Star, and eventually starred in three movies with Bing Crosby–College Humor (1933), Double or Nothing (1937), and Doctor Rhythm (1938). She retired in 1943, having appeared in over 60 movies. In the 1950s and for many decades thereafter, Mary ran the Elizabeth Arden Salon in Beverly Hills. Talking about her time at the salon, her eyes brightened and she talked proudly about what she was able to do there. It was clear to me that she considered this one of her crowning achievements.

My time with Mary lasted about 3 hours, and before I left, Mary gave me this picture. I keep it among my treasured photos. In 104 long years, Mary lived several lives in one and impacted many people. I think of her often, and the fact that she’s no longer with us will take some getting used to. She will be dearly missed.

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Olivia de Havilland Court Update: CA Supreme Court Denies Review

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Dear readers, I’ve been waiting to post about this until I got details from Olivia de Havilland’s lawyer regarding next steps, but a few days ago we got word that the California Supreme Court has declined to review de Havilland’s case against FX.

For those of us who have been advocating for her side, this comes as a blow. We don’t know how close the decision was–there was at least one justice, Justice Mariano Florentino Cuéllar, who voted to allow de Havilland to have her day in court. As judges are not required to publish their votes,  Justice Cuéllar’s is the only vote on record for either side.

We don’t know what, if anything, will happen next. The next step up in the legal system would be the Supreme Court of the United States. De Havilland’s team is weighing its options, but given the enormous pressure of being involved in a US Supreme Court case at the age of 102, this is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Regardless of what happens next, what has transpired in this case has been truly remarkable. When the case first went to the California Supreme Court, I posted an article outlining how to write an amicus curiae letter to the court in favor of de Havilland’s side. Thanks to all of you who sent your letters, 90 amicus curiae briefs were received by the court, a record-breaking number. In her email today addressing the outpouring of support, de Havilland’s lawyer wrote: “The fact that you collectively supported us and advocated for truth and fairness in the law was very important to our side.”

I have said and written from the beginning that no matter the outcome of the case, de Havilland wins. By simply putting pressure on corporate interests, showing them that civilians have the power to take them to task, she speaks truth to power and holds it accountable to the people. Since de Havilland filed her case, Ryan Murphy has shelved a season of American Crime Story about Monica Lewinsky, and the DVD release of Feud has been suspended. By daring to stand up, de Havilland has forced FX to back down and operate with more respect for facts and living people.

I will keep you posted about next steps, but in the meantime, may we all take a lesson from Olivia de Havilland–no matter how great our adversary, we cannot be intimidated by size or power. When we speak up and stand up, look the threat in the eye and assert our own presence, we see that maybe our biggest fears aren’t so big after all.

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Scarlett Johansson and Minority Representation on Film

A few days ago, Scarlett Johansson was announced as the lead in a new movie called Rub & Tug about Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man who owned a massage parlor and became involved in mob crime. The casting of a cisgender actress to play a transgender man has generated an angry buzz, only heightened by a Johansson rep’s reply to it: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment” (cisgender actors who have played transgender characters onscreen). In the wake of this conversation about what it means to have a minority character represented by someone outside the group, I thought this would be a good time to talk about this subject in film history.

When the Hays Code first came into being in 1930, the code explicitly forbade miscegenation onscreen, which was defined as “sex relationships between the white and black races.” This applied not only to what was depicted on film, but also in who was allowed to play which parts, opposite whom. If a leading man was black, for example, the leading lady also had to be black. If he was Asian, the leading lady had to be Asian, if he was white, the leading lady must be white. In order to tell the stories that they wanted to tell, starring the celebrities that would make them the most money, the studios were frequently pushed to put actors in blackface or yellowface, thereby creating films that was marketable–but outrageously offensive. Films such as these were frequently picketed by the NAACP, but for many years the studios found the picketing a small cost compared to the box office revenue from the films, and they had little motivation to do anything about the racially charged nature of the films coming out of Hollywood.

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[IMAGE: Anna May Wong in a jeweled headdress, looking off camera.]

Meanwhile, careers were suffering. Anna May Wong, one of the few leading ladies of Asian descent in Hollywood in the 1930s, left for Europe out of frustration with the anti-miscegenation laws that governed how she could work onscreen. In Europe, she made a huge splash with such films as Piccadilly and Pavement Butterfly, but after her return to the United States when she signed a contract with Paramount, she could only be paired as a leading lady alongside Sessue Hayakawa–while Asian and Asian-American roles opposite white actors had to go to other white actors. Instead of procuring her onscreen roles, Paramount gave her a job as a tutor to teach white actors how to “act Asian” for their parts. The final straw came when the role of Chinese farmer O-Lan in The Good Earth went to Luise Rainer opposite Paul Muni. Wong had had it with Hollywood, and from then on only acted in low-budget films to finish her contract with Paramount, in later years donating her profits to United China Relief.

In 1942, the NAACP succeeded in its efforts to convince Hollywood to stop creating stereotypical characterizations of minorities, and to hire more African-American talent, but the anti-miscegenation laws continued. The role of Julie LaVerne in the 1951 version of Show Boat, a story that deals with the interracial relationship of a white man and a singer with African-American ancestry, was given to Ava Gardner instead of Lena Horne. In 1951, you could depict an interracial relationship–but not with an actual interracial couple.

Lena Horne sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat, in the movie Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)

Fortunately, these rules are now long gone in the movies. But their influence still echoes, in the desire to stick with already-established personalities who will bring profit to the movies, rather than prioritize authentic casting. While it is now widely recognized that white actors cannot play characters of color, the same understanding does not yet exist for transgender characters or disabled characters. When the movie Wonder came out last year, starring Jacob Tremblay as a young boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome, I couldn’t help but think how many kids with Treacher Collins would have loved to star in a movie about a child with their disability. Or how many aspiring young actors with the syndrome could have played that role to perfection, and were denied a chance at employment. Like the limited opportunities afforded minority stars in the days of the Hays Code, this tendency to procure big names over authentic casting is costing many actors their livelihoods, and the right to tell their own stories.

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Marlee Matlin made her screen debut in Children of a Lesser God (1986), and won the Best Actress Oscar as a deaf actress playing a deaf role. She remains the only deaf performer to have won the award.    [IMAGE: Marlee Matlin signs in the dinner scene from Children of a Lesser God]

There is no dearth of transgender actors in Hollywood. The cast of Transparent, using authentic transgender casting, has earned numerous accolades and awards. Its stars, most previously unknown, have become veritable names in the industry. Had the producers of Rub & Tug managed to look beyond the reflex appeal of Scarlett Johansson and take a risk on an unknown transgender actor, they almost certainly would have found one, able to tell his own story truthfully and honestly. But as long as Hollywood plays it safe, continuing to recycle its moneymaking stars with no attention to authenticity, we will continue to see mere imitations and stereotyped portrayals on the screen, and miss out on witnessing potentially spectacular untapped talent.

There is an oft-repeated phrase in the disability rights community that has made its way into the LGBT rights movement–“Nothing about us, without us.” The producers of Rub & Tug would be wise to take that into consideration.

Standing Up for What’s Right: The Friendship of Grace Kelly and Josephine Baker

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In response to Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ ousting from the Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, VA on Friday, I wrote a tweet detailing one of my favorite Hollywood stories about standing up for core principles and values. To my great pleasure and surprise, the tweet has gone legitimately viral. Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, and I wanted to tell the whole story here where I have more space.

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In 1951, Grace Kelly was an up-and-coming star in Hollywood. She had grown up in Philadelphia, a member of an aristocratic Irish Catholic family, and fell in love with acting and theatre under the wing of her uncle, George Kelly, a renowned playwright and director. 1951 saw her first major role in a motion picture, High Noon, which had given her almost overnight stardom.

At home in Philadelphia, in the words of her biographer Donald Spoto, Grace “never understood prejudice.” She was partly raised by her family valet, an African-American man whom she called “Fordie,” and whom she always credited as one of the major foundations of her early life. She asked his advice and followed it, regarding him as a third parent. In addition, her uncle George was gay. It was not a secret within the family, but she witnessed her uncle’s ostracism from society and that influenced her profound sense of awareness of the LGBT community. Later in life, she was known for immediately coming to the defense of gays and lesbians, whenever something derogatory was said about their sexuality.

Josephine Baker was born in Missouri in 1906. She suffered a harrowing childhood, from which she escaped into the world of vaudeville. Because of segregation and other limitations on people of color, she decided that her best chance at success was to go to New York, where she danced at the Plantation Club and Adelaide Hall. She found financial success as a chorus girl in Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies, becoming known as “the highest paid chorus girl on Broadway,” but was never a featured performer.

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At age 19, she signed with a French/American business team aiming to bring an all-black revue to Paris, and she opened in La Revue Nègre at Le Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. In France, Baker found performing and living to be wildly different than in the United States. She was an instant hit with the Parisian public, and decided that this is where she could have the most impact. After the European tour, she broke her contract with La Revue Nègre and returned to Paris to appear in the Folies Bergères. Baker starred in three films and thrilled audiences with her performances, including La Danse sauvage (which she performed with minimal clothing). Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw,” and she rose up as a phenomenal entertainer, the toast of Paris, called by the French “la grande diva magnifique.” Baker enjoyed immense privilege and wealth in Paris, but she never attained the same respect in the United States. American audiences were put off by Baker’s sensual performances and small voice, and after one failing tour back to the United States, she married a French industrialist, moved to France permanently, and gave up her American citizenship. During World War II, she served as an active member of the French Resistance, carrying messages written in invisible ink in her sheet music. She housed volunteers and helped them with visas, and after the war was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de Résistance, and the Chevalier d’Honneur by Charles de Gaulle.

A superstar in 1951, Baker returned to the United States to sing in Miami and then went to New York to celebrate being named NAACP’s “Woman of the Year.” On October 16, she entered the famous and exclusive Stork Club restaurant for dinner, but the staff refused her service. Several different anecdotes exist about what exactly happened–some say Baker was seated and then the staff refused to serve her, others say she was refused a table altogether–but Baker was not served.

Grace Kelly, sitting nearby, was witness to the whole affair. Josephine Baker was world famous, and she knew exactly to whom the Stork Club was refusing service. At the point when it was clear that Baker was not going to be served, Kelly stood up, took Baker by the arm, and walked out with her entire party in tow. She vowed never to eat there again.

After this incident, Kelly and Baker became close friends. Kelly accompanied her back to Europe that summer, and the two spent quality time together in Paris and London. In 1956, Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco, and even as a princess, Baker was always close to her heart. By 1974, Baker was having severe financial issues and was struggling to support her many beloved adopted children. Her old friend, now Princess Grace, gave her a royal villa to live in with the children, and together with Jacqueline Onassis, she financed Baker’s triumphant comeback in Paris the following year.

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Just a few days after her return to the stage, Josephine Baker was found dead of a stroke in her apartment, surrounded by her rave reviews. She is buried at the Cimitière de Monaco, and remains the only American-born woman to receive a funeral with full French military honors.

The nature of the friendship of Princess Grace and Josephine Baker is one that we would do well to remember in this day and age–their friendship, and indeed both of their personalities independent of their friendship, was based on standing up for principle, helping those in need, and eschewing prejudice in all its forms. May we continue to hold them as examples.