Candidly glamorous

He hung out with James Dean on the "Giant" set, shot Liz Taylor's first wedding and made love to Marilyn Monroe -- or so he told friends years later. During Hollywood's golden age, photographer Frank Worth saw its biggest stars as few mere mortals ever have: lounging in their boudoirs, killing time between shoots, brooding over open liquor bottles. The beautiful people liked Worth's straight-up, Brooklyn-bred personality and trusted him to keep their tawdriest secrets.

When Worth died two years ago in a Hollywood hospital, few in the industry probably noticed his passing. By then his reputation had dimmed and his paparazzi shots were long out of circulation, mostly stashed away in his cluttered apartment. But through Tuesday, Worth's black-and-white glamour images are getting the red-carpet treatment at an open-to-the-public exhibition at Sotheby's auction house in Beverly Hills.

Sponsored by the Diamond Information Center, a diamond-trade publicity group, the exhibition is being timed to coincide with the Academy Awards' 75th "diamond" anniversary, and will culminate in a charity auction hosted by Sharon Stone.

But according to Austin and Howard Mutti-Mewse, the exhibition's British identical-twin curators, no added glitter is needed to give luster to Worth's candid glimpses of Hollywood stars. "He wanted them to appear to be human beings. He would approach them and they were approachable back to him," says Howard, the nattier half of the 30-year-old Mutti-Mewse duo, cutting a matinee-idol figure in tweed jacket, silk ascot and Burberry socks. "We'd heard he'd taken some pretty racy pictures, but he pretty obviously had destroyed them," chimes in Austin, who cultivates a more bohemian edge (soul patch, spiky hair) than his sibling.

What's left of Worth's prodigious output may not be racy, but it's still a far cry from the highly posed publicity portraits of movie stars you'd find in the fanzines of his era. Possessed with a knack for being in the right place at the right time, Worth caught Joan Crawford puckering up for the cameras, Jane Russell being mobbed by men in cowboy hats, Marlon Brando and Bob Hope wrestling and mugging over an Oscar statue. His friendships with the likes of Dean, Frank Sinatra, James Cagney and Pat O'Brien gained him access to places normally off-limits to photographers. As for the opposite sex, the twins say that actress Mamie Van Doren -- no slouch herself in the va-va-voom department -- described Worth as "like catnip to women."

Frustrated in his dreams of becoming a movie director, Worth decided that if he couldn't engage with actors on the big screen, he'd settle for a smaller scale. Self-made and self-taught as a photographer, he used to spend hours at New York's Grand Central Station, customized Kodak Brownie in hand, waiting for the Hollywood Express to arrive so he could catch stars disembarking. After moving to Los Angeles in the late 1930s, he joined the Hollywood Photographers Guild and spent the next quarter-century, from 1939 to 1964, snapping away. "The whole of Hollywood is encapsulated in that collection," says Howard Mutti-Mewse.

Thought to have been lost, the 10,000 images in Worth's private collection were discovered shortly after his death by a second cousin. Their value was quickly spotted by a producer acquaintance of Worth's, as well as by the Discovery Channel, which proposed filming a documentary about the unearthing of the photographs. That's about the time the Mutti-Mewses were recruited to help identify the subjects of Worth's pictures.

For the brothers, it was a dream project. Both freelance journalists (the Guardian, the Tatler), the twins say they've been ardent film buffs since pre-pubescence, when their maternal grandmother began weaning them on the silent-film classics regularly shown on the BBC.

Austin was so enamored of Lillian Gish after seeing her in Victor Seastrom's "The Wind" that he wrote her "an over-the-top letter." To his astonishment, she wrote back thanking him and closing with, "P.S. How old are you?" The twins were then 12.

From then on, the brothers began corresponding with more of their idols, many of whom thought the world had forgotten them. Occasionally, the stars would send along vintage photos of themselves, film scripts and even personal artifacts. After taking their bachelor's degrees in film and design, the twins began work on a documentary, "I Used to Be in Pictures," an affectionate group portrait of many of their former pen pals. The twins hope to secure funding to finish the project.

Meanwhile, they're hoping their exhibition may help demonstrate that Old Hollywood carried itself with a sense of style and glamour that is imitated, but rarely equaled, by today's celebrities.

"I think now, they want to keep it real, they don't want to be seen as stars, they want to be seen as guys on the block," Austin says. "But in a funny way, the stars of today are less approachable than the stars of yesterday."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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