December 14, 2016

With the most wonderful time of the year fast upon us, we thought we’d chime in with a few gift suggestions. We’d lead off with a recommendation to pick up Design for Dying for any fan of movies, mysteries, or both on your Christmas list, but we’re concerned that might look a trifle gauche. So we will heroically resist the impulse.

The ideal gift for the theater-lover in your life is Gypsy on DVD or Blu-Ray. In the acclaimed London production of the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim musical with a book by Arthur Laurents, which recently aired on PBS, Imelda Staunton plays the indomitable Rose, dragging her daughters June and Louise up and down the vaudeville circuit, trying everything in her power to make them stars. The character has been incarnated on stage by powerhouses like Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone, but Staunton, in her Olivier Award-winning performance, goes them one better. She plays every emotional note of this most terrifying of stage mothers: from the tooth-and-claw ferociousness of “Some People” to the swaying seduction of “You’ll Never Get Away from Me.”
No one gets away from Rose, not without a fight, and Staunton’s co-stars in this production are worthy opponents: Peter Davison (Dr. Who, Campion) as Rose’s mild-mannered beau Herbie and Lara Pulver (Irene Adler in BBC TV’s Sherlock) as Louise. Pulver rises to the challenge of portraying Louise on her journey from young girl hoping to escape a frenetic childhood to glamorous woman, the self-assured Gypsy Rose Lee, world-renowned burlesque artist.

Gypsy will always have a special place in our hearts knowing the real Gypsy Rose Lee was a woman of many talents, including mystery writing. Her novel The G-String Murders was turned into the delightful Lady of Burlesque starring Design for Dying featured player Barbara Stanwyck with costumes by—who else?—Edith Head. (If you’re interested, here’s a spoilerific article by Sondheim fanatic Rosemarie for Noir City on 1973’s The Last of Sheila, co-written by Sondheim and Anthony Perkins.)

Also perfect to place under the tree this year is Robert Wagner’s I Loved Her in the Movies. In this third book by the debonair actor (all of them written with acclaimed Hollywood biographer Scott Eyman), he talks about his favorite actresses, some of whom he appreciates as a film fan, many of whom he worked with or knew personally over the course of his sixty-five-plus-year career. Wagner casts the net wide as he moves through the decades, remembering names now too often neglected like Norma Shearer, Ruth Chatterton, and the sad case of Paramount star Betty Hutton. He recalls with affection old pros Joan Blondell and “great lady” Ann Sheridan, and includes a chapter on character actresses like Thelma Ritter and Ann Rutherford. Wagner seems to have meet almost everyone and always has a story at the ready, but also has a fine grasp of Tinseltown history, offering a fascinating digression on a location that has long fascinated us: the Hollywood Studio Club, a dormitory for aspiring actresses funded by industry bigwigs that was home to Marilyn Monroe and Kim Novak among others. There’s even a tie-in to our first gift idea as Wagner dishes on the 1962 film of Gypsy that starred his then-wife Natalie Wood, noting that Rosalind Russell was “subtly miscast as Momma Rose, a part that Natalie and I felt cried out for Judy Garland” and preferring George Cukor or Vincente Minnelli in the director’s chair over the “slightly passé” Mervyn LeRoy. Throughout this warm, engaging book, Wagner bears in mind that actresses have it tougher than their more vain male counterparts, who “can walk around in a semiblissful state, their innate masculine vanity preceding them into the room by a good five yards” – himself included. Wagner is hopeful about the future, earmarking Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone for lengthy careers. But I Loved Her in the Movies is all about the glories of the past, and any fan of Golden Age Hollywood will be happy to stroll down Memory Lane with him as a guide.


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