I’m writing a series of blogs about the things I love about the 50s. There are many different topics so I’ll start with the stars. Of course the 1950s is the golden age of cinema that produced many exciting new stars but here are a few of my favourites.
I find Marilyn Monroe’s life fascinating. She came from an abusive and unstable childhood but become a mega star of the 20th century. The images of Marilyn’s white dress being blown upwards in The Seven Year Itch and singing ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in Gentleman Prefer Blondes are part of our collective consciousness. But you can also see Marilyn’s vulnerability in many of the famous images; the public persona was blonde sex siren but the lost little girl is still there. She was glamorous, beautiful and perfect for the big screen, but her private life was marred by mental health problems and broken relationships. Marilyn’s influence is long-lasting and her untimely death at the age of 36 was a great loss to the world – many people still question the official verdict (probable suicide caused by an overdose of barbiturates).
I know I’m going with the obvious choices but I was also fascinated by James Dean as a teenager. Why is it about dying young that seems so exciting at that age?! James Dean made his film debut in 1955’s East of Eden as Cal, a misunderstood and moody young man who is unable to gain his father’s approval. In the same year he played a juvenile delinquent in Rebel Without A Cause and made cinema history – Jim Stark personifies the disillusioned, angst-ridden teenager that terrified parents so much in the 1950s. Rebel Without A Cause also represents a changing culture as teenagers challenged their parents’ views and demanded more freedom to explore their individuality through fashion, music and film. Everything changed for young people in the 1950s and James Dean was the figurehead of this movement.
Elizabeth was a force of nature! Her famous violet eyes were surrounded by an extra row of eyelashes (caused by a genetic mutation) which enhanced her natural beauty. I first remember seeing Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet – a film about a young woman who pretends to be male in order to compete as a jockey at the Grand National. I read Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was doing my A levels and it was about this time that I saw her in the film version opposite Paul Newman, which is gloriously dysfunctional. Another big hit from this time was Giant alongside Rock Hudson and James Dean (I had a poster on my bedroom wall!) Elizabeth’s multiple marriage’s seemed to be the main talking point as she got older, but this trivialises her achievements as an actress.
A blue-blooded European who survived the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War II, Audrey’s refined elegance was a huge contrast to Marilyn’s blonde bombshell image. She first came to the world’s attention in the film Roman Holiday, winning the Best Actress Oscar in 1954. Soon she also came to the attention of the designer Givenchy and became not only his muse but a fashion icon for generations to come. Audrey’s name will always be synonymous with the little black dress!
My first introduction to Marlon Brando was his role as Superman’s dad in Superman II but I discovered his great films of the 50s when I was a teenager (the same obsessive Marilyn Monroe and James Dean phase). Films such as A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One and On the Waterfront are examples of the great strides that the movie industry made during the 1950s. In my mind’s eye I see him in a leather jacket astride a Triumph Thunderbird or screaming “Stella” at the top of his lungs!
If Marilyn Monroe is the blonde bombshell then Sophia Loren is the brunette bombshell! Sophia was an illegitimate child who overcame a poverty-stricken background to become Italy’s biggest film star of all time. She starred in a series of Italian comedies during the 1950s but achieved international success when she gained a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1958. Unlike many of the actors who came to fame in the 1950s, Sophia’s career thrived in the subsequent decades and well into the 21st century. An inspiration to us all!