Like a Natural Woman

Like a Natural Woman: Spectacular Female Performance in Classical Hollywood

Kirsten Pullen
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qh190
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  • Book Info
    Like a Natural Woman
    Book Description:

    Bathing beauty Esther Williams, bombshell Jane Russell, exotic Carmen Miranda, chanteuse Lena Horne, and talk-show fixture Zsa Zsa Gabor are rarely hailed as great actors or as naturalistic performers. Those terms of praise are given to male stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean, whose gritty dramas are seen as a departure from the glossy spectacles in which these stars appeared.Like a Natural Womanchallenges those assumptions, revealing the skill and training that went into the work of these five actresses, who employed naturalistic performance techniques, both onscreen and off.Bringing a fresh perspective to film history through the lens of performance studies, Kirsten Pullen explores the ways in which these actresses, who always appeared to be "playing themselves," responded to the naturalist notion that actors should create authentic characters by drawing from their own lives. At the same time, she examines how Hollywood presented these female stars as sex objects, focusing on their spectacular bodies at the expense of believable characterization or narratives.Pullen not only helps us appreciate what talented actresses these five women actually were, but also reveals how they sought to express themselves and maintain agency, even while meeting the demands of their directors, studios, families, and fans to perform certain feminine roles. Drawing from a rich collection of classic films, publicity materials, and studio archives,Like a Natural Womanlets us take a new look at both Hollywood acting techniques and the performance of femininity itself.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6266-7
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION: PLAYING HERSELF: THE NATURALIST PARADIGM AND THE SPECTACLE OF FEMALE SEXUALITY
    (pp. 1-26)

    In the 1954 Twentieth Century–Fox filmThere’s No Business like Show Business,the ambitious vaudevillian Vicky (Marilyn Monroe) cha-chas, struts, can-cans, and bump-and-grinds her way through “Heat Wave,” delivering a weather forecast of “hot and humid nights.”¹ She sings that she “started this heat wave,” undulating her hips and thrusting her pelvis, “in such a way that the customers say that I certainly can . . . can-can.” It’s a showstopper among showstoppers. In addition to Monroe’s sexy number, Ethel Merman (as vaudeville matriarch Molly Donahue) sings the title song, already her standard; Johnnie Ray (playing performer-turned-priest Steve Donahue)...

  5. CHAPTER 1 ENGINEERED FOR STARDOM: PUBLICITY, PERFORMANCE, AND JANE RUSSELL
    (pp. 27-61)

    Jane Russell, Ashton Reid announced inCollier’sin 1945, is “queen of the motionless pictures.”¹ Russell had worked on two films,The OutlawandYoung Widow,but neither had yet been widely released.² Even so, she was better known than many starlets with films in wide release because of the countless pinups, magazine pictorials, billboards, and fan magazine articles generated by the publicist Russell Birdwell for her debut in Howard Hughes’sThe Outlaw.By 1945, photographs of Russell had appeared in almost three dozen different magazines, often more than once;³ billboards supportingThe Outlawwere posted in several cities; and gossip...

  6. CHAPTER 2 MORE THAN A MERMAID: ESTHER WILLIAMS, PERFORMANCE, AND THE BODY
    (pp. 62-93)

    In 1948, wounded by critics who excoriated her acting ability and frustrated with MGM’s resident acting coach Lillian Burns, Esther Williams approached George Schtanoff, a Russian drama coach who trained starlets off the studio lots. He refused to help her: “Anybody can do Portia, but I don’t know anyone except you who can sing and swim at the same time. I’m afraid I should not tamper with your successful career.”¹ His response reveals assumptions about film acting during the Classical Hollywood era as well as about Williams’s special talents as a performer. First, acting, even Shakespeare, could be learned...

  7. CHAPTER 3 LIGHT EGYPTIAN: LENA HORNE AND THE REPRESENTATION OF BLACK FEMININITY
    (pp. 94-126)

    In 1942, Lena Horne was offered an MGM contract; like Esther Williams and countless other aspiring stars, she underwent the standard makeup, wardrobe, and lighting tests for MGM executives and producers. But where Williams remembers this as a necessary if sometimes frustrating experience, Horne’s experience indicates the failings of the studio system regarding performers of color. In her bitter account, performed in interviews, memoirs, cabaret shows, and her 1981 autobiographical tour de forceLena: The Lady and Her Music,Horne explained that her “copper-colored” skin didn’t effectively signal blackness on film. Max Factor, MGM’s chief makeup artist, developed the pancake...

  8. CHAPTER 4 CARNIVAL!: CARMEN MIRANDA AND THE SPECTACLE OF AUTHENTICITY
    (pp. 127-168)

    In 1936, Carmen Miranda was featured in the filmAlô Alô Carnaval,singing the solomarchinha(march) “Querido Adão/Dear Adam.” ThoughAlô Alô Carnavalis no longer extant, Miranda’smarchinhais available on YouTube, thanks to a dedicated Brazilian fan.¹ The number is staged for the camera on a facsimile of a nightclub stage, but the band and singers accompanying her are not visible. Her voice is light and her diction crisp. Using her body to underscore both the comedy and the theme of the song, she gestures with curving arms and fluttering hands, and punctuates key lines with rolling eyes,...

  9. CHAPTER 5 FAMOUS FOR BEING FAMOUS: PERSONA, PERFORMANCE, AND THE CASE FOR ZSA ZSA GABOR
    (pp. 169-200)

    In 1958, Universal Pictures releasedTouch of Evil,written and directed by and starring Orson Welles.¹ This film noir, famous for the incongruity of all-American Charlton Heston playing a Mexican, its three-minute opening tracking shot, and especially Welles’s struggle with the studio over final cut, is now recognized as a classic of US cinema. Universal hired Harry Keller to reshoot some scenes and add new material, then edited the film to a lean ninety-three minutes but left much intact, including Zsa Zsa Gabor’s cameo appearance (see figure 27).

    Gabor appears on a staircase in the “strip-teasers” club she manages, walks...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 201-226)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 227-246)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 247-248)