Throughout the history of cinema, the female actor has functioned as a screen goddess, an image of perfection, and a powerful affective force. Whether it is a specific vocal intonation, a certain physical, psychological or political disposition, or a combination of these, the female actor has the power to give expression to our dreams, desires, and fears.

As part of its continuing focus on women and cinema, Senses of Cinema recently extended an invitation to its contributors to reflect on, and pay tribute to, a specific female actor. The result is an eclectic and unconventional range of entries that testifies to the power and force of the female actor.

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Elizabeth Taylor by Liz Burke

Lili Taylor by Anna Daly

Fay Tincher by Andrew Grossman

Mari Töröcsik by Dina Iordanova

Natalie Wood by Angela Costi

Xiao, Fangfang by Feng-ying Ming

Tsetsiliya Zervudaki by Jorge Didaco

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Elizabeth Taylor and National Velvet

Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet

What does it feel like to be in love with a horse?” – Edwina Brown

I lose my lunch” – Velvet Brown

In 1945, MGM produced National Velvet (Clarence Brown, 1945) an equine drama set in a cheesy England of picturesque villages and colourful rural folk. Mickey Rooney received top billing but English teenager, Elizabeth Taylor shared second billing with Donald Crisp. Liz had been evacuated from England in 1942 and had already made several films. She’d buried her face in Lassie’s extravagant mane (Lassie Come Home, Fred M. Wilcox, 1943) and had died tragically of consumption (Jane Eyre, Robert Stevenson, 1944). But as a 13-year-old in National Velvet, she really became a star – at least in my eyes.

National Velvet is the story of Velvet Brown, a small town butcher’s daughter with a passion for horses who wins the English Grand National on the rank outsider, The Pie. Based on a classic of children’s literature of the same name, National Velvet is a film I can watch repeatedly with the same overflowing emotion. It is a text full of fantasy and identification that isn’t afraid to represent the overwhelming passion some adolescent girls feel for horses. Liz Taylor’s performance equally embodies that passion to an almost hysterical degree.

With her lustrous skin, huge violet eyes and cascading black hair, she is almost too exotic a Technicolour creature. The passion with which she engulfs her horse could be seen as a precursor to the hypnotic stare she uses to bewitch Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951), a mere six years later. But the passion here is more innocent, more aligned with fantasies of freedom and autonomy than in her subsequent roles.

A key scene in the film occurs through a transition. We see Velvet in the bedroom she shares with her two sisters, pretending to ride The Pie using string looped through her toes, for reins. The scene dissolves to her riding The Pie in reality, lost in the speed and the feeling of total communication with an animal of another species. (How do I know this? Because I know that feeling.) In the background is a rear-projected scene of sky and sea. There is an element of fantasy here. It is the first time we’ve seen her on a horse and until this point it hasn’t been clear if she even knows how to ride. Visually, it recalls a scene in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), where Tippi Hedren rides her favourite horse. But there is none of Hitchcock’s psychosexual weirdness here, just sheer, unadulterated joy.

National Velvet isn’t just a film about young women and horses. It is also about young women and mothers. There is another strong presence in Velvet’s life – her Mother, Araminty. Played by Anne Revere, she is all strong, Puritan cheekbones and restrained strength and severity. Like her daughter, Araminty had a dream. This was to be the first woman to swim the English Channel. She succeeded and kept her prize —a hundred gold sovereigns— waiting for a magnificent reason to spend it. In that wonderful Hollywood way, Velvet needs exactly a hundred gold sovereigns to enter The Pie in the Grand National. Araminty gives Velvet the money but warns her that this is a dream ‘she’ll have to live on all her life’. The unspoken part of the bargain is that no matter whether she wins her race or not, Velvet is destined for small town obscurity and motherhood just like Araminty. Velvet accepts the money thoughtfully; there is no rebellion, no questioning her fate, just a ritualistic handing over of the symbolic gold from mother to daughter.

When Velvet’s father accuses Araminty of folly in giving away all this money to a young girl with her head full of dreams, Araminty responds with: “What’s wrong with folly?” This is a film in which the women are wise dreamers who believe in breathtaking folly and the men are foolish pragmatists who only know the value of a sovereign.

National Velvet employs the classic trope of gender impersonation. Velvet knows that The Pie can only win if he’s ridden by someone who loves him so she replaces the unsympathetic jockey who had originally been hired to ride the horse. Mickey Rooney’s character cuts off Velvet’s magnificent black mane so she can pass as a jockey. While the feminine Taylor is hardly believable as a boy, it is a dramatic device audiences have been very willing to accept. Velvet’s impersonation is discovered when she falls from the horse in a faint at the end of the race. Given women were then not allowed to ride in the Grand National, the race is taken from her. While this seems incredibly unfair, Velvet has the integrity and strength to know that she and her horse are the best, regardless of what the history books record.

At the conclusion of the film, Velvet and The Pie are offered huge amounts of money to go to Hollywood and show themselves off in ‘moving pictures’. At first, she’s entranced by the thought of another adventure with her horse but eventually refuses the money. She doesn’t want The Pie to become a sideshow —and her mother has told her she only gets to have one dream. When Velvet’s father argues for The Pie’s money-making potential, director Clarence Brown gives Taylor a dazzling close-up. She is as passionate as Joan of Arc when she states: “I’d sooner have that horse happy than go to heaven”. One of my favourite lines in cinema.

When considering Liz Taylor’s subsequent career, there is a sad irony to her youthful expression of these worthy sentiments. Here is an actress more acknowledged for her celebrity than her actual performances. Taylor is someone who has been stared at all her life, from her early days in roles like Velvet Brown, to her present status as a slightly dodgy grand dame of the cinema. But somewhere still inside Liz is the young girl who wouldn’t let her beloved horse be sent to Hollywood to be stared at, no matter how huge the temptation.

by Liz Burke back to list of names

Liz Burke is a Melbourne filmmaker and occasional writer about film.

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Constructing the Screen non-Beauty: Lili Taylor (1)

In an essay that explicates the heretofore elided agency of the painter’s model, Elizabeth Hollander concludes, positively that:

Although her contracted role in the studio partakes of myths of images and images of myths, the model’s own sense of self is rooted firmly in the conventions of self presentation by which persons can offer themselves as objects – of worship, study, contempt, desire, pity, empathy – for other people’s delectation, while still knowing who they are (2).

It is in this vein that I wish to pay tribute to Lili Taylor for being an inspiring screen actor and for inhabiting characters that deny the absolute nature of the feminine position on screen as one of ‘object.’ In discussing her screen persona, I have three movies in mind: Dogfight (Nancy Savoca, 1991), Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993), and I Shot Andy Warhol (Mary Harron, 1996).

Dogfight depicts a shy, socially awkward young woman (played by Taylor) and her involvement with a young man (River Phoenix) who asks her out as part of a bet. The boy wins his money but, as expected, actually does like his date, who finds out she’s being taken to a ‘Dog’s Ball’ as contender for the ‘Ugliest Girl’ prize. Unlike other films with similar themes, Dogfight manages to convince the audience that Phoenix’s character has fallen in love with the girl because he sees her as beautiful, with no ‘But’ clauses. That is, she doesn’t turn into a magazine model overnight, due to her ‘ugliness’ being a misrecognised product of circumstance, as in Strictly Ballroom (Luhrmann, 1991). And no convenient priority is given to ‘personality’, placing the female character in the awkward position of accepting her ‘ugliness’ but being comforted by her ‘inner beauty’, as in Shrek (Adamson and Jensen, 2001). Rather, Dogfight tells us that beauty is subjective and once a protagonist occupies that pre-constructed position ‘object of desire’ we begin to read any occupier of that position as ‘beautiful’ (3).

Lili Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol

This is outlaid with a different emphasis in I Shot Andy Warhol, where ‘beauty’ as a construct is synonymous with ‘cool’ and vice versa. Although a radical feminist/writer, Valerie Solanis is not the right kind of ‘radical’ to be considered ‘cool’ by Andy Warhol and his troupe (4). Throughout the movie, Solanis is portrayed as a brilliant, slightly unhinged character who after writing the SCUM Manifesto, felt that Warhol should endorse her work. He vaguely promises to do so, and then avoids seeing her at every opportunity. Warhol’s Factory-workers are a mob of fashionable sophisticates, numbering amongst them drag queens, nude models, writers, musicians and drug addicts. Solanis is portrayed as an affront to their urbane sensibilities. Being unfashionable, loudmouthed and unapologetically radical in her feminist politics, she doesn’t realise that she’s unsuitable for this art of surface, interested as she is in the literal, rather than mischievous, manifestation of art.

In search of an alternative publisher, the usually unembellished Valerie reluctantly dons lipstick and a dress with a view to presenting herself as the kind of female author that a male publisher would think of contracting. She does become ‘beautiful’ as the ‘ugly duckling’ story has taught us to expect but her discomfiture in the fact that men ‘notice’ her makes for a sense of relief when she finally gets back to being Valerie. In the Mulvey way of understanding cinema, the male spectator is being denied ‘his’ gaze. ‘He’ is given a brief moment of satisfaction at the expense of scopophilia. Valerie Solanis is a character on screen because she is primarily a character on screen; her position as a figure for identification or desire is secondary. (Interestingly, that traditional understanding of ‘the gaze’ is accommodated only in reference to the character of Candy Darling, the resident drag queen.) When a woman on film looks into a mirror without thoughts of suicide, without adjusting her appearance or experimenting with hairstyles we are being given that rarest glimpse of how a woman-as-subject may look towards herself for identification without imagining how that self appears to others.

In Short Cuts, Taylor plays Honey Bush to Robert Downey Jnr.’s Bill Bush. In the context of her oeuvre she is ‘playing it straight’. They are represented as an attractive young couple who smoke too much pot and get up to mischief whilst house-sitting a friend’s apartment. Not only is this ‘straight’ for Taylor, it provides an interesting contrast by which her other roles can be assessed: it proves that when she acts ‘non-beauty’ that’s exactly what she’s doing – assuming a role.

When theorist Griselda Pollock asks “What’s Wrong with ‘Images of Women’?” she is analysing that phrase ‘Images of Women’ in terms of its accepted rhetorical use both within and outside the parameters of feminist theory. For, she argues, if that which is pictured before us is an aesthetic construction, why validate it with reference to ‘the real’? (5) It is with this in mind that I am analysing Taylor’s choice of roles in terms of the varying constructions of screen beauty and the seemingly inextricable relationship between that position and that of being an actor who’s a woman. It is my belief that Taylor deliberately adopts the role of the non-Beauty in an effort to detach the purpose of women on screen from the position of aesthetic-object.

In essence, Taylor’s work emphasises the craft involved in acting, where a role is inhabited so completely that the actor loses him/herself to this super-imposed ego. On film, a medium that’s popularity has in part been built on the foundations of iconography, this includes the representation of beauty, the standard of which is used to judge the ‘performance’ of many women actors. To pursue the characterisation of an iconic ‘non-beauty’, then, is to defy the parameters of understanding women’s visual representation. To have non-beauty as a screen position from which a character evolves means that the fate of a woman character may only be influenced by her appearance, as opposed to being defined by it.

by Anna Daly back to list of names

Anna Daly recently completed a MA in film, philosophy and globalisation at Monash University, Melbourne. She has written in the past for online magazine Palaver.

Endnotes

  1. I wish to make it clear from the outset that I am not discussing Lili Taylor, the person. I am discussing her identity as an ‘on-screen’ construction. Not knowing Taylor at all, it would be presumptuous of me to attribute to her work, motivations derived solely from the parts that she plays. I stress this because I also know nothing about her contracts, the impetus of director’s in hiring her or how closely she works with them to ensure that her characters conform to her on-screen persona. As such, ‘Lili Taylor’ is being discussed as a diegetic entity, where we understand the screen as a medium for visual narrative and that the characters depicted are at once inhabited by a ‘real’ person (the actor) who attempts to convey to us their agent’s contribution to the overall production.
  2. Elizabeth Hollander, “Working Models”, Art in America, May 1991
  3. As when American Beauty‘s (Sam Mendes, 2000) ‘plain Jane’ confronts her mysterious scopophilic neighbour who seems creepily fascinated by her. Alone together, we see from his perspective, who Jane is to him as an object of desire; in profile, a beautiful, Victorianesque young woman with a gently curving face reminiscent of cameo jewellery.
  4. Critics that panned the movie upon its release tended towards the view that it offended the memory of a cultural phenomenon. But the depiction of Warhol as a pretentious, vain man is consistent with any portrait drawn from the perspective of a non-fan. The woman, Solanis, was obviously hurt by the dismissive attitude he adopted towards her. Could it be true, possibly, that some people did not think he was God?
  5. Griselda Pollock, “What’s Wrong with ‘Images of Women’?” in The Sexual Subject: A screen Reader in Sexuality, New York, Routledge, 1992

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Fay Tincher

One is hard pressed to name a true comedienne in today’s English-language cinema with any real box-office clout, but in the silent era proto-feminists like Mabel Normand, Constance Talmadge, and the doe-eyed Fay Tincher could almost always guarantee a crowd-pleasing, box-office hit. Nevertheless, history has been unkind to the once-popular Tincher, who, though having starred in dozens of shorts and features between 1913 and 1930, has been relegated to a mere footnote in most surveys of silent comedy, if not omitted altogether. Early roles included a supporting part in D.W. Griffith’s now-obscure The Battle of the Sexes (1914) and Dulcinea in a 1915 Don Quixote, but Tincher soon found her niche as a farceur in indelicate two-reelers such as Ethel Has a Steady (1914) and Ethel Gets the Evidence (1915), and later became established as a formidable comedienne under the tutelage of producer-director, Al Christie. Though she never ascended to the level of a Mabel Normand, and though one finds no eternal masterpieces in her filmography, Fincher’s recently reissued Western comedy Rowdy Ann (Al Christie, 1919) has the incipient makings of a cult classic, and may be one of the first American films, comedic or otherwise, to legitimately addresses the social psychology of gender construction.

Fay Tincher in Rowdy Ann

Clad in a plaid shirt, floppy hat, and oversized, fur-lined chaps, Tincher’s cowgirl “Ann” is not so much cross-dressed as she is ambiguously butch. She lassoes her misbehaving, alcoholic father, brawls with villains who make unwanted romantic overtures, rescues from a bully a kindly but ineffectually effeminate cowboy who shows her meek affections, and trigger-happily shoots up saloons, trains, and anywhere else she pleases. Never in film history, before or since, has a woman wielded a gun so wantonly, recklessly, and joyously, and her violent slapstick frenzies remain startling even today. Soon, this “ranchman’s manly daughter,” as an inter-title describes her, is shipped Eastward to become a “lady” at college, where she reluctantly exchanges her uncivilized Western garb for frilly gowns and elfin dancing costumes. Nevertheless, Ann retains her six-shooter, slinging it incongruously over her ladylike academicals; when her classmates mock her, she thrashes half of them and threatens the rest with the pistol. After the school director takes custody of her weapon, we fear she will “revert” to the domesticity and passivity that accompanies the feminine object; to our pleasant surprise, her inner personality remains unaltered, and the film climaxes with Ann employing her trusty lasso to foil a (male) con artist.

Though we rightfully wonder how successful a spouse Buster Keaton could possibly be at the end of Our Hospitality (1923) or Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), his asocial clown has been, at least to some degree, assimilated by the socializing institution of marriage. But in Rowdy Ann, Tincher subversively resists her feminization (and thus socialization) through to the film’s very end, at which point the kindly but ineffectual cowboy with whom we assumed she’ll be romantically paired has been forgotten altogether. Director Al Christie may have utilized transvestite farce in his earlier Dororthy Devore short Know Thy Wife (1918), wherein the heroine cross-dresses as her fiancé’s short-haired “male friend” to fool his unsuspecting parents, but there the heroine’s sexuality and “marriageability” are never in question. Tincher’s “Ann,” however, is a rare exception to Walter Kerr’s rule in The Silent Clowns: “Comediennes labored under an instant handicap: they had to be pretty.” In Rowdy Ann, using the masculinized trappings of the Western, Tincher not only transcends standard norms of femininity but, more exceptionally, enters the realm of asexual, asocial play that was generally the exclusive terrain of the socially subversive male silent clown.

by Andrew Grossman back to list of names

Andrew Grossman is the editor and co-author of the anthology Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the Shade (Harrington Park Press, 2001). He is a regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, Scope: The Film Journal of the University of Nottingham, American Book Review, and other periodicals.

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Mari Töröcsik

Mari Töröcsik, who was born in 1935, is one of the most versatile actresses of Hungarian cinema. Seemingly plain by appearance, she has a superbly refined screen presence. She studied with leading Hungarian director Zoltán Fábri who cast her in his famous early film, Körhinta/Merry-Go-Round (1955), where Töröcsik played a village Juliet. Set against the backdrop of rural Hungarian life after World War Two and featuring traditional country fairs and folk dances, Körhinta tells a lyrical love story of star-crossed lovers who want to marry against the will of the girl’s land-owner father. A breakthrough indictment of patriarchy, Körhinta was among the first films that explored the tensions between patriarchy and the socialist rush for collectivisation of agriculture. Töröcsik also had the lead in one of Fábri’s next films, Édes Anna/Anna (1958), an adaptation of Dezsö Kosztolányi’s novel.

Since 1957, Töröcsik also pursued a career as a theatre actress at the Hungarian National Theatre. Appearing in over 20 films during the ’60s (out of a total of approximately 80 film roles throughout her entire career), she became one of the most popular Hungarian actresses, and was continually cast by many leading Hungarian directors. In Miklós Jancsó’s Elektra/Elektreia (1974), Töröcsik paired with György Cserhalmi for a remarkable performance; she also had memorable leads in Pál Sándor’s Szerencsés Dániel/Daniel Takes a Train (1983) and in Attila Janisch’s Hosszú alkony/Long Twilight (1997).

Mari Töröcsik in Szerelem

Töröcsik’s main strength, however, is as a supporting actress. She was the choice for crucial secondary parts in Márta Mészáros’s Holdudvar/Binding Ties (1968) and Napló apámnak, anyámnak/Diary for My Father and Mother (1990), in Károly Makk’s Macskajáték/Cat’s Play (1972), and in Péter Gárdos’s sensitive exploration of the failed Hungarian 1956 anti-communist revolution Szamárköhögés/Whooping Cough (1986). Töröcsik’s work in Károly Makk’s Szerelem/Love (1971) was acknowledged by a special mention at the Cannes film festival. The film is set in the Stalinist 1950s and tells of an old fragile lady in her nineties whose days are counted (played by the legendary Lili Darvas, 1906-1974). She lives in seclusion, with no idea what is going on outside the walls of her home, surrounded by the memorabilia of her Austro-Hungarian youth. Her son is imprisoned by the Stalinists, but she is not supposed to know that. Her daughter-in-law (played by Töröcsik) lies to the old lady, making her believe that the son is away in America, involved in making movies. During her visits, the daughter-in-law ‘reads’ to the old woman imaginary letters from the son. The scenes of letter reading are interspersed with the old woman’s flashback visions and dream-like reminiscences of her missing son’s childhood and adolescence, all memories carrying the specific flavour of an imperial glorious Austro-Hungary. The son is taken away and will not be back before her death; the only private encounter between mother and son that can still take place is the mother’s daydreaming, mediated by the daughter-in-law. With its cinematic and psychological subtlety, Love is simultaneously one of the finest treatments of the bond between mother and child as well as an indictment of Stalinism.

Married to director Gyula Maár, Töröcsik was cast by him in a number of female roles focusing on mid-life crisis, like Végül/At the End of the Road (1973), Déryné hol van?/ Mrs. Déry, Where Are You?(1975) and Teketória/ Flare and Flicker (1976), as well as in Hoppá/Whoops (1993). She also received a Best Actress award at Cannes for one of her television collaborations with Gyula Maár (in 1976). The Cannes experiences are recounted in Gyula Maár’s documentary Töröcsik Mari Cannes-ban (1997).

Most likely due to language barriers, Töröcsik’s international appearances are limited; she is usually cast in supporting roles as a Hungarian woman, most notably in Costa-Gavras’ Music Box (1990).

by Dina Iordanova back to list of names

Dina Iordanova has published extensively on Eastern European and Balkan cinema. Her most recent books are Cinema of Flames: Balkan Film, Culture And The Media (BFI, 2001) and Emir Kusturica (BFI, 2002).

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The Mother, the Gypsy and the Star – a poetic exhortation on what made ‘Natalie Wood’

Way before the Star (Natalie Wood), there was her Mother. The Mother as virago, as atavist, as megalomaniac. And the Mother knew precisely how to manoeuvre and swerve through the ingrained need to push, push, push to be, be, be something beyond the one home, the one family, the one story… she was from Royal Russian stock, indeed! Desire was her reality. Acceptance was her enemy. She harnessed the truth of her life into packaged fable for the ears of those in the big town of tinsel. For in this town where Americans lived, it was secure; no Bolsheviks to run from, no hangings to witness, and if you were competitive and ambitious you would be kept safe forever.

The Mother was named Maria Stepanovna Zudilova.
The Mother, when growing up, was known endearingly as Musia.
The Mother was called Mud by her famous daughter, the Star.

Before the Mother gave birth to the Star, the Mother was young and clambering for her own peak where she could shine on her minions. Twice Queen and twice Princess of the Invalids Balls. Collecting from street corners if she had to, to get that crown and wear that dress, wrap that banner to her chest, shaking the trophy at the Russian San Francisco community and saying, See, the Russian throne was meant to be always my destiny. But the Mother had one child and was destined to have a second and a third, and Romany magic was weaving spells in her life too well, causing her to lust for deliciously devilish men. There was the son of an Armenian Cossack who gave her the guts to elope, to voyage to America and live in squalor; and her measly food money was so easily squandered for feverish transcendence in the Temple Movie Theatre, where stars were projected as beautiful women and dashing men with drama embracing them from the credits to the end.

The Mother gave birth to Olga, before she gave birth to the Star.
The Mother’s second husband was Nikolai, the Russian immigrant with
the matinee idol looks, the poet’s soul and vodka’s spirit.
The Mother, with Nikolai, conceived the Star.

When the Mother was not a mother, not a wife nor a lover but a young woman in desperate need of being all three and more, she would seek out the prophecies from the gypsies. It was the true gypsies that could tell the true fortunes. The cards shuffled, placed, revealed… and the strong whispers from the deck became mightier than the faith. No Russian Orthodox priest could ever dissuade the Mother’s worship of what was said by the Harbin Gypsy that fateful day. For in China there is a place called Harbin for Russians to run to and stay in forever, or for a while, enough to be told their future. And the Mother in the blossom of youth sought out the Harbin Gypsy. In a swirl of prophetic encounter a future was born. The Harbin Gypsy’s twin prophecies would make and undo the Star.

The Gypsy foretold the Mother of her second child, the Star.
The Gypsy said the Star would be ‘ a great beauty known throughout the world’.
The Gypsy warned the Mother to beware of dark water for she was destined to drown.

And many years later, the Mother gave birth to the second child. And the Mother knew she was blessed with more than a miracle of nature. As she cradled her baby with the eyes so big and dark and the lashes so long and fine, she trembled with inner knowing that she was like the Virgin holding her baby Jesus, like Goddess Demeter chanting immortality to her baby Persephone. And the Star’s eyes might have been those of a baby back then, but they carried her undisturbed soul and they sent sparks of fear and dread to her Mother, who completely ignored and continued to wean her on fame and fortune.

The Star was born in October 1937 and baptised in the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church as Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko.
The Star became known as Natasha Gurdin, to ease the American tongue of foreign difficulty.
The Star was given the name Natalie Wood by the men who made movies.

The Star took to this new adulterated feed of fame and fortune before she could walk and talk, and grew into a little girl who knew how to curtsy and smile to certain older men with camera crews, screenplays and clapperboards hovering over their heads like rainbows. Hopscotch and skippy rope with the local kids from the local school or long lazy afternoons in a cubby house filled with an entire imagination were never the little Star’s hours; instead, auditions for grown ups, remembering lines on paper without pictures, crying in front of strangers when they said Action. The playground was a movie set with old men’s rules and Mother’s shadow prodding perfection, or else.

The Star acted in her first film, Happy Land (Irving Pichel, 1944), at the age of five.
The Star became a childhood celebrity, renowned for her braids and wholesomeness in her fourth film, Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, 1947).
The Star hated her pigtails and welcomed them being cut off, behind her Mother’s back.

The Star’s movies began to mirror her life. She became the rebel with the cause to gain some independence from Mud, even if it was fleeting, only the length of a movie. And when she embraced James Dean she meant it with all her talent and all her heart. He was the symbol of freedom, the symbol of choice, the symbol of secret yearning. Bred to be every man’s desire, she was. At 16 she had lived twice her age, and with men almost thrice her age. She knew the score, knew what it took, knew that talent and beauty weren’t ever enough – seduction, quite sexual, sometimes made her the favourite. Equipped with a mind that memorised every line for every actor, as well as her own, and eyes that melted a tough critic’s gaze, she skyrocketed to stay forever in Hollywood’s constellation.

Natalie Wood in Gypsy

The Star went on to do a stunning array of classic movies, including The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), Splendour in the Grass (Elia Kazan, 1961) and West Side Story (Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, 1961).
The Star was in awe of Vivien Leigh after she saw a Streetcar Named Desire.
The Star was petrified of water scenes in many of her movies but she did them anyway.

Then the Gypsy returned into the Mother’s and the Star’s lives, in the guise of a film: Gypsy (Mervyn LeRoy, 1962). The Star had her chance to show the world the tormented love between her and her Mother. Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose was her Mud in so many ways, pushing and pulling, wanting what’s best… turning the Star into the actress made for tragedy. Heralding the time for blurring the Mother, the Gypsy and the Star, until all three became the one icon of stardom beyond the grave.

The Star carried throughout her life a deeply held premonition that she would drown in deep dark water.
The Mother always warned her daughter of watery depths.
And the Gypsy never lied.

[Resources: Suzanne Finstad, Natasha: the biography of Natalie Wood, Century, 2001; Lana Wood, Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister, Columbas Books, 1984]

by Angela Costi back to list of names

Angela Costi is a Melbourne-based poet and playwright. She also has a Law/Arts degree and a diploma in Professional Writing.

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Xiao, Fangfang

Born in 1947, Xiao Fangfang is one of the most prolific, versatile, and intellectual Hong Kong female actors. She is also noted for her impressive professional breakthroughs in spite of deafness and a series of personal problems. She appeared in 212 films between 1954 and 1995.

Becoming a child star at the age of six to support her mother and earn her own living, Xiao Fangfang essentially grew up in front of the camera. Her father, who studied abroad in Germany, moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1949 when his only daughter was two, and died there a year later. Her mother was an artist from Shanghai who became Xiao Fangfang’s business manager when she was a child star. While she was young, Xiao Fangfang played mostly homeless orphans, martial arts practitioners, or young rebels, and became an iconic figure for Hong Kong youth. She was one of the “seven princesses” in the Hong Kong film industry during the 1960s. She generally played female roles in her films, often as the “girlfriend” of another popular female actor named Chen Baozhu, who played mostly the role of a young male. In playing the “girlfriend,” Xiao Fangfang sometimes invited the jealousy and resentment of Chen Baozhu’s fans. The marketing competition between Xiao Fangfang and Chen Baozhu in the 1960s was quite dramatic.

Xiao Fangfang in Stage Entrance

Xiao Fangfang put her performing career on hold in 1970, the prime time of her career, in order to pursue a college education in the United States. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Seton Hall University in 1973, she returned to Hong Kong, and won best actress awards in both Taiwan and Spain. She directed her first film, Jumping Ashes, in 1976, created the legendary female comic character Li Yazhen for her own 1977 television program, established her own film company in 1980, and won another best actress award in Taiwan in 1981. In 1983-84 she pursued further study in America, won another best actress award in 1987, hosted an English language instructional TV program and published a series of English instructional audio materials in 1989. In the 1990s, she published a best-selling book, Yangxiang (Embarrassing moments), produced a CD version of her English instructional materials in 1991, returned to the screen with well-known martial arts actor Jet Li in 1993, and won another best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1995. Her latest two, and by far probably the best among her films, are Woman at Forty (Nüren sishi, 1994), and Stage Entrance (Hudumen, 1996), both depicting the lives of middle-aged women.

After receiving a Master’s degree in Psychology from Seton Hall University in 1998, Xiao Fangfang retired from the field of the performing arts. She established a non-profit child sexual abuse prevention organization in Hong Kong and became a full time social worker.

by Feng-ying Ming back to list of names

Feng-ying Ming teaches at California State University, Long Beach.

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Tsetsiliya Zervudaki and the Art of the Eccentric Actor

Stanley Kubrick once said about Shelley Duvall: “The wonderful thing about Shelley is her eccentric quality – the way she talks, the way she moves, the way her nervous system is put together. I think that most interesting actors have physical eccentricities about them which make their performances more interesting and, if they don’t, they work hard to find them” (Michel Ciment, Kubrick, trans. by Gilbert Adair, First Owl Book Edition, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1984, p.189).

We can define the eccentric actor as someone who uses every part of his or her body as something akin to an internal rhythmic percussion, putting his or her breathing system in service of the character they are portraying and achieving a performance that is at the same time both organic and non-naturalistic. The eccentric actor likes to use text as means to produce sequences of fulminating ideas, be it an anachronistic gesture, an ambiguous smile, a contradiction between what is said and what is shown, using the face sometimes as a kabuki mask, the body as an iconic sculpture and going from an act of passivity and inertia to one of aggressiveness and movement and vice-versa in a snap of fingers.

Tsetsiliya Zervudaki in Save and Protect

I would like to praise one of the most sublimely eccentric performances, and also one of the most moving, funny and tragic (sometimes all of it in one single gesture) I’ve ever experienced: Tsetsiliya Zervudaki in Aleksandr Sokurov’s Save and Protect (Spasi i sokhrani, 1989). Embodying all the contradictions of the Flaubert heroine from sexual desire and ennui to mediocrity and enlightenment to childish behaviour to a mature woman in absolute control of her powers, she (who has never acted before or since) uses stylised gestures, produces a series of moans, grunts, half finished sentences, speaks indistinctly in French and Russian becoming an even more foreign figure in her milieu. It is a stunning performance that reminds me of Edvard Munch’s portrait of The Madonna (1894/5) with those dark eyes, that fluttering hair and that sense of carnality and spirituality, achieving a state of transcendence in both direction and performance.

by Jorge Didaco back to list of names

Jorge Didaco is a Brazil-based teacher and writer in theatre, performance and film.

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