Portraits from a poison pen

Eve Arnold
November 1, 2002

The photographer Eve Arnold, US-born of Russian immigrant parents, has lived in the UK since 1962. She has had innumerable exhibitions of her work here and elsewhere, notably at the National Portrait Gallery, the Barbican Gallery and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. As a candid photographer she will long be remembered.

For half a century, part of her work was to photograph movie stars on and off location. The main purpose was to produce a photo-essay of high standard to promote the film when it was released. Later, she published some of the photographs in her books. This one, her 12th book, covers some of her intimate experiences in movies over 30 years in the US and UK, mainly during the 1950s. She does not keep many secrets; and few stars escape her poison pen.

At that time her sessions were particularly difficult because she was using the square-format Rollei camera, which is awkward to compose in. Pictures seem to work best in rectangles because the eye sees that way. Historically, the Rollei bridged the period from the even larger studio-format camera to the smaller, more flexible 35mm camera.

Her first movie personality was Marlene Dietrich, taken in 1952 - a consummate professional who stipulated that she was to have the final right of approval. Vetting the pictures, Dietrich wrote instructions in eyebrow pencil: "Narrow down the chin, cut down the waist, remove the dimple from the knee, the ankle should be slimmer." Bob Capa at Harper's Bazaar said that Arnold's work fell, metaphorically, "between Marlene Dietrich's legs and the bitter lines of migratory potato pickers" (a famous Arnold subject).

Joan Crawford was another fading star Arnold photographed. The first time the actress insisted on being photographed nude. But something happens to flesh after the age of 50, and the photographs were not a success. Threatening Arnold that she would never work in Hollywood again, Crawford confiscated the photographs. Arnold notes that Crawford grew up as a prostitute in her mother's establishment and began her acting career in pornographic films.

Marilyn Monroe, captured during the making of The Misfits (1960), was a divine gift to the still camera. Arnold remembers how all the stars in the film - Monroe, John Huston, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift - were misfits: all a little connected to catastrophe and burnt out. Back in New York, Arnold spent a week with Monroe going through the photographs for a picture story in a European magazine. Wearing a diaphanous black robe with nothing underneath, Marilyn asked if the magazine editor minded if she brushed her hair. "No, of course not," the woman said. When she looked up, the star was brushing her pubic hair.

Anecdotes - of Grace Kelly, imperious and impervious, barely tolerating the camera crew for a television documentary, showing her palace in Monaco like Jackie Kennedy's tour of the White House; Simone Signoret sharing confidences; banter with the bingeing Richard Burton, newly married to Elizabeth Taylor, on the set of Beckett in 1963; the extraordinary fight scenes between Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch in The Pumpkin Eater ; a publicity-hungry Andy Warhol directing Harlot in 1964; and a fastidious, sparring John Huston acting in and directing The Bible in 1965 - feature throughout Arnold's Film Journal. Jean Simmons boasts: "I'm not a constipated actress anymore" in Life at the Top ; and a 77-year-old Chaplin looks nothing like the Little Tramp until the moment he dances on the set of A Countess from Hong Kong . "Suddenly the world was transformed and it was magic. He was the Little Tramp all over again. Bravo."

The memoir is light reading. But the photographs are worth the price of admission. We see Isabella Rossellini studying lines for Blue Velvet ; Mikhail Baryshnikov playing a game with a dog; whores from Mexico City recruited by Huston for Under the Volcano ; Laurence Olivier trying to remember his lines in Clash of the Titans ; Sean Connery being fitted with a wig for The Great Train Robbery ; George C. Scott rehearsing Patton ; Anouk Aimée reviewing her lines for Justine ; and Rex Harrison having trouble with a parrot in Doctor Dolittle . At the end, there is a loving study of the author/photographer by Henri Cartier-Bresson, taken in London in 1998. Arnold fully deserves the honour.

Christopher Ondaatje is a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.

Eve Arnold: Film Journal

Author - Eve Arnold
ISBN - 0 7475 5917 1
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £25.00
Pages - 256

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