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Stargazing for the sake of dreams

Michael S. Roth, president of the California College of Arts and Crafts, is the author of "The Ironist's Cage: Memory, Trauma and the Construction of History."

Twentieth Century Fox

Inside the Photo Archive

For the record:
12:00 AM, Mar. 02, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 02, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Reviewer credit -- A review by Michael S. Roth in Sunday’s Book Review identified him as president of the California College of Arts and Crafts. The school changed its name to California College of the Arts in San Francisco/Oakland in 2003.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 06, 2005 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 10 Features Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Reviewer credit -- A Feb. 27 review by Michael S. Roth identified him as president of the California College of Arts and Crafts. The school changed its name to California College of the Arts in San Francisco/Oakland in 2003.

Photos selected by Rob Easterla, Kevin Murphy and Miles Scott

Harry N. Abrams: 240 pp., $50

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The Bad & the Beautiful

Photographs by Ellen Graham

Harry N. Abrams: 176 pp., $45

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So why do we look at photographs of movie stars? Sometimes it’s because we think we can catch them looking like anything but stars. Unaware of the camera (for once), they hold our interest because we hope to see something beyond what the cameras (and the publicity departments) allow us to see. Can we sneak up on the star, or somehow capture with a camera the person who is there when there is no camera rolling? Can we get backstage and see these people like they must see one another? Of course not.

“Twentieth Century Fox: Inside the Photo Archive” seems to promise some access of this kind, and when it allows us to see cameramen and directors at work with their actors, it does give us that backstage thrill. There is something magical about seeing the cameras and lights lined up, about seeing Darryl Zanuck lighting his cigar, Joseph Mankiewicz and John Ford puffing on their pipes while they check out the action. There is something sad but intriguing when we get a glimpse of Olivia de Havilland surrounded not only by actors playing a doctor and a nurse on the set but also by the guy with the stopwatch, the guys with the camera, the guy with the light meter, and a couple of guys standing around in suits. The Snake Pit, indeed. We also find Jennifer Jones on a fake bit of grass, on a tiny elevated stage that will appear as a wide-open field on the screen. But she leans against the artificial tree as if it really were part of some pastoral scene, as if love might really be a many-splendored thing. It just doesn’t look so splendored in this photo from 1955.

“Inside the Photo Archive” is not, though, a book that wants to dispel the magic of the movies. On the contrary, many of the photographs manage to convey the blend of eroticism, elegance, beauty and play that made the studios so breezily successful. In his brief foreword, Martin Scorsese reminds us that the studios were called dream factories, and this collection provides plenty of images that recall an age when fantasy and artfulness, when sexuality and craftsmanship were brought together in ways that I want to believe are unforgettable. You can’t click on these images. You have to hold the pictures in your hand, have the feel of turning the page and finding Warren Beatty looking down at his shoes (1970), Audrey Hepburn looking up at the sky (1966), Loretta Young (1937) seeming to enthrall the entire crew (we see them in a mirror) with a smile that is as captivating as Jane Russell’s -- cocktail in one hand, punching bag in the other -- is mischievous (1953).

In his “Mythologies,” the French critic Roland Barthes wrote that Garbo’s face conveyed the essence of beauty, and not a mere example of it. That’s why, when the time came, she was good enough to hide away. “The Essence became gradually obscured ... " Barthes wrote, “but it never deteriorated.” He also wrote that after Garbo we no longer found an “essence” on the screen but only “events.” Some events, though, are more significant than others. Raquel Welch appears at various places in this book, but only to recall the splash she was allowed to make. We see the beautiful Sharon Tate, but it’s just too hard to look at this dream without the rude awakening, the decisive event that Charles Manson inflicted on all of us. On the other hand, there are the massive, cataclysmic events: Marilyn, Liz, Kate, Audrey. Is it possible to look at them and not be stopped in one’s tracks? If Barthes is right, they aren’t at the essential level of Garbo, but let’s not forget that the Ice Age was started by a mere event.

“The Bad & the Beautiful” is a book of photographs by Ellen Graham, who, we are told by no less an authority than Rex Reed, “turned celebrity-watching through the lens of a camera into a respectable career.” Graham does not possess what one would call a strong sensibility. She sometimes resorts to tricks, at other times to the conventions of romantic portraiture. You probably won’t know who all of these people are, but they were at one time famous enough to appear in somebody’s gossip column. And that means they were legitimate objects for Graham’s camera. Don’t worry about the unfamiliar ones. You can Google them.

There are plenty of familiar faces in “The Bad & the Beautiful,” and some of them offer real pleasures in return for our attention. There is Edgar Bergen at 71 looking as if he is really trying to understand what Charlie McCarthy has been saying all these years. Mortimer Snerd looks on peacefully. We see Fred Astaire and wife Robyn (1984) and wonder why he is pulling a long face. You may be as startled as I was to open to a mustachioed and hammocked Robert Wagner with beer in hand, while on the facing page Natalie Wood breastfeeds their daughter (1973).

But keep turning the pages, and you are sure to find something you like, or something more deserving of your attention. Maybe it will be Doris Day and dog (1973) -- she’s wearing a shirt that says “Be Kind to Animals or I’ll Kill You.” Or maybe it will be Candice Bergen in her troubled radiance, wearing a T-shirt ironically asking us in 1971 to visit Cambodia, that “sanctuary of charm.” The pictures of Lena Horne, of Henry and Peter Fonda on facing pages (to be compared with Henry and Jane in the Fox book) and even of Michael Tilson Thomas at the zoo are just right. These are less celebrity photos than small portholes through which we can see in a new way the images of very familiar people. Events.

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In his lovely and sad little book on photography, “Camera Lucida,” Barthes wrote famously about what he called the punctum, the detail in a photograph that cuts you to the quick. “A photograph’s punctum,” he said, “is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” To my eyes, this is the open, upturned left hand of Joanne Woodward, as she takes a cigarette break from “The Three Faces of Eve” (1957) and stares beyond those around her on the set. Or the Coke bottle in Tyrone Power’s right hand, as he and Henry Fonda look back from atop a train at the throngs of people come to watch them film “Jesse James” (1939). Are they wondering why we are looking at them? Why do we continue to leaf through books like these? Perhaps it is to find those accidents that (re)connect our memories and fantasies to those impossibly large images on the screen. *


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