"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces." -- Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
Fifty-five years after Gloria Swanson melodramatically proclaimed this line in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, it remains a truism today.
Actors and actresses had mesmirising faces in the Golden Age of Film, but their appeal cannot be reduced to a mere quadrangulation of features.
It had to do with a style, an essence, perhaps even an attitude which doesn't lend itself to modernity: to be a screen goddess, you had to leave a part of your self-consciousness behind, and yet, turn it outwards to your audience, trusting them to receive it in its proper spirit.
It is not beauty or elegance which made these women below film goddesses. In fact, a few even had unconventionally irregular features.
But that's exactly the point.
That is how you could project yourself unto the screen, secure in the knowledge that a whole infrastruture was behind you, allowing you to imagine you are greater than the sum of your physical parts.
It's precisely this cinematographic seduction which we are missing today -- a dance between the presenter and the viewer which exists only in the mind, and yet comes alive on the darkened screen.
Each of these actors below represents a part of this unspoken covenant.
This pact is not entirely lost, yet cynicism has made too many inroads of doubt in our minds for it to find uncritical ground today.
Perhaps, who knows, it will make a Desmondesque comeback soon.
It was Ann Althouse who brought the point home to me, that 18 September marked Greta Garbo's centenary.
A face which disappeared from the world's radar in 1941 would just be 100 today.
Thousands, perhaps millions of words have been written about the sphinx-like star born in Sweden, in a working-class suburb of Stockholm.
How her retiring nature had to do with deep shame of her grade-school, barely literate education, the precise reason which Joe DiMaggio enveloped himself with an aura of mystery too.
(When you feel so inadequate, you tend to develop high standards about yourself in public; but it's monumentally taxing to keep them up, so you withdraw from life)
How her luminous beauty inspired awe, and yet slight disgust, dividing men and women neatly the down the middle.
She was one of those rare females who turned men off, and turned women on, and each was not quite sure why.
I know why.
In fact, we all do -- she was translucent, and vulnerable, and strong, and cold. She played a game that men didn't understand, but that women still do today.
She wanted something, in her case solitude, and for once, people indulged her, rather than forced her to do as they willed and expected.
That is every woman's secret desire in life.
To have what they want, to have it all, by achieving it, as by being given it. And she did.
Films of Note: Ninotchka, Gösta Berlings saga, Love.
Pixie. Elfin. Gamine.
These are all words which are often used to describe the particular, hauntingly sad beauty of Audrey Hepburn, the Belgian-born Dutchwoman of Anglo-Irish extraction.
I suppose it has to do with her odd, lemon-shaped face.
That face looks like that of a child, parts innocent, parts sorceress. Something which is difficult to pin down, and frankly, few people want to, the better to keep alive its otherworldly magic.
I don't think there has ever been such a debut for any actress, as Audrey Hepburn had in Roman Holiday.
For a world starved of sophistication and glamour, after the austerity of wartime, she was foreign, yet somehow knowable, unlike Garbo, and not, poor dear, as clownish as Carmen Miranda.
Her attraction, in fact, lay with her unsensual sensuality, the opposite of Grace Kelly. This was no iceberg who one felt smoldered deep within.
She was the woman all women wanted to act like, to be confused for, and all men wanted to possess, if only once.
And even then, it was a passing fancy, lest her enchantment evaporate and they be left with reality.
They needn't have worried. In Audrey Hepburn's case, dreams were no match for reality.
Films of Note: Roman Holiday, The Nun's Story, Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Most people, if they remember Carole Lombard at all, simply remember that she was the woman who died tragically before her time in an airplane crash, leaving Clark Gable an inconsolable widower.
What few people know is that this earthy goddess from the careening plains of Fort Wayne, Indiana, had over 100 films under her belt, before she made one talkie.
She was the consummate taskmistress on set, it was said, who knew everyone's lines, could drink the grips under the table, could swear at the director with a mouth many truckers would blanch at, and looked like a Hellenic statue whether in jeans or Adrian ballgown.
Lombard was the ultimate American woman: brassy, bold, and yet surprisingly feminine in the most unexpected of moments.
A goddess tempered by the prairies.
Films of Note: Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, To Be or Not to Be.
MYRNA LOY, ASTA, WILLIAM POWELL
Tell me. Where have Americans like these gone to? Because they once existed, you can believe it.
Not all their compatriots conform to the unsophisticated, uncomplicated lark-abouts which infect popular perceptions of them to this day.
The elegance, the wit, and savoir faire of Myrna Loy, with those Asiatic features, and her eternal co-star, William Powell, make the 1930's appear like an endless cocktail party instead of a world of Hoovervilles, of bread lines, of the sparing of dimes.
But they were emblematic too of what Americans once aspired to be: fun-loving, but not rowdy. Gracious but not stuck-up. Endlessly unsober, but never sots.
It was a world where a martini was your birthright, crime was family fare, and even your beloved pooch dripped with charm.
If you can find these Americans today, drop me a line. I'd very much like to buy them a drink.
FILMS OF NOTE: Manhattan Melodrama, The Thin Man, Double Wedding.
What? You say you've never heard of Zarah Leander? Pshaw!
No, she wasn't a minor Hollywood starlet. She wasn't an MGM import castoff, who got the slim pickings which Eleanor Powell or Ginger Rogers didn't want.
In fact, in her time, in her corner of the world, she was a HUGE star.
Everyone sang her songs.
All women mimicked her smokey, deep-throated voice.
And this time, this lady was covetted by most men, all too eager to possess those deep brown eyes which kept them company in the trenches.
But she wasn't American. She was Swedish, in fact. And she wasn't in Hollywood. She was the darling of Nazi Era Film.
No, that wasn't a typo, you read a-right.
Zarah Leander was a star in German film during the Third Reich, the special preserve of Dr. Josef Goebbels, who monitored UFA studios as Minister of Propaganda.
Since, of course, Hollywood represented the hated Jewish establishment, the mischlinge quality of America, Adolf Hitler censored and controlled films coming from the United States (all the while, enjoying them privately himself. It Happened One Night was his special favourite, and he ordered Goebbels to reproduce it, in the uneven screwball copy, Glückskinder), so he had to produce other stars, homegrown or specially imported from vettedly Aryan countries.
It's also quite startling, most people remark, that a Swedish woman with brunette colouring should be the centrepiece of Nazi Film. Perhaps after the boring blondeness of other actresses, she was a healthy enough anecdote.
Because she never had much to do with the Nazis, and because it's hard to chuck out your first love, or the woman whose lips you modeled yours after, her memory lives on in Germany, largely unsullied.
The woman she was supposed to take over from when she exiled herself, Marlene Dietrich, in contrast is hated in Germany.
It's complicated...but I suppose even when you served a monster, if you gave solace to millions during hopeless times, they will remember you with affection...
...including, Pope Benedict XVI, who mentioned her in his memoirs.
Films of Note: Heimat, Es war eine rauschende Ballnacht, Die Große Liebe.
Ahh, Claudia Cardinale. Even the name trills on your tongue with lightness.
I have heard it say that Claudia Cardinale was the Italian Brigitte Bardot -- even down to the slight facial resemblence. Perhaps it's the pouting lips.
But no. Cardinale is no mere sex kitten. She's more in line with Sophia Loren in being a WOMAN. All woman, from the moment you lay eyes on her.
In the spaghetti westerns she brought to life, Claudia Cardinale was like a particularly ferocious handmaiden, dragged from one man to another, but knowingly so, not as a doormat of desire.
If there is one woman of the last 40 years which can lay claim to being a screen goddess, it's not Romy Schneider, who deteriorated physically beyond recognition.
It's not Catherine Deneuve, who is one of the few pre-1970's actresses whose beauty actually looks better in colour, than black-and-white.
It's Claudia Cardinale. The Tunisian with the lion's mane and heart.
Films of Note: C'era una volta il West, 8½, Rocco e i suoi fratelli.
You're looking at the man who started Hollywood on a path to glamourise their stars.
Before him, male leads were awkward cowpokes in ill-fitting suits. Female leads were wispy like Lilian Gish, or Mary Pickford, and no more mysterious than a bucket of spit.
After him, actors had to weave a spell of enchantment in audiences. Or else.
I chose this photo because it shows the three things he made de rigueur to have if you were a man alive in the 1920's: a cigarette, a wrist-watch, and slicked-back Brilliantine hair.
And by the way, men hated him, whilst women flocked to him because I suppose, he too wanted to have it all -- and failed.
Films of Note: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik, The Eagle.
It is often said there are no more screen goddesses because black-and-white cinematography lends itself to dream-making, and we live in a colourised world.
And though there is a certain truth to that, I think it's a vastly overstated reason.
Here's living proof:
Claudette Colbert in glorious colour, wearing her Cleopatra togs. After all, a screen goddess is made, not born, and her pedestal need not be monochromatic either.
Or how do you explain the heart-stopping impact of a Vivien Leigh, as Scarlett O'Hara?
Films of Note: It Happened One Night, Cleopatra, Tovarich.
Ann asked in her blogpost who her readers thought came closest to a screen goddess, of the latest crop of actresses.
You're looking at my nomination.
If you paid attention closely to my examples above, you'll know why.
Just let's say, like Garbo, she takes herself seriously enough to be a screen goddess, with her self-possession, her wide-open glamour, and yet she holds something back, which we have to go searching for to find.
Films of Note?
At least, she had a Face.