How is that the British, way down now in the rankings of global movie production, have come up with a successful genre all of their own – the national treasure. Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren to be sure first came to prominence in the same year, 1969, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Age of Consent respectively, but whereas Hollywood has turned its back on the ageing female contingent, the British film industry has wrapped its most famous stars in cotton wool and proceeded to give them roles they can take to the Oscar bank.
Mirren was in her early 60s when she romped home in The Queen (2006); you only have to say Downton Abbey and Smith, already two Oscars to the good, is regarded as screen royalty. And that’s before Judi Dench enters the equation, a few years older than Mirren when she nabbed the Oscar for Shakespeare in Love (1998). You can pretty much count on getting funding for any picture if you can rustle up any of this trio. Want to bring back the older crowd? Dangle these carrots!
Elevated into this category now is Lesley Manville, the 66-year-old star of the delightful Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. While largely escapist, there’s enough of a contemporary vibe, a Paris redolent of filth, the downtrodden going on strike, to provide an edge, and a narrative that continually punctures dreams any time fantasy looks like running away with itself. Set in 1950s London and Paris where the poor know their place, and are rigidly kept in it by the arrogant rich, but where aspiration can at any moment take flight.
Cleaner Mrs Harris, dreaming of buying a £500 dress – we’re talking the best part of £14,000 these days – scrimps and saves, and through a couple of more than fortuitous events, finds her way to the House of Dior where she is despised by haughty manager Claudine (Isabelle Huppert), adored by philosophic model Natasha (Alba Baptista) for having such aspirations, and manages to cast a spell, although not for the reasons expected, over rich widower the Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson).
There’s not much plot. She has to remain in Paris for a fortnight for fittings and whiles away the time helping along the romance between under-manager Andre (Lucas Bravo) and Natasha, assisted by their existentialist leanings, eventually overcoming hostility and putting everything to rights in the Dior empire. But you don’t need plot when you’ve got charm. The English notion of fair play initially comes a cropper when facing French egalitarianism out of whack, when the rich can jump the queue and basically make everyone jump to their tune. But when a character like Mrs Harris settles for second best you can be sure she’ll come up trumps. Whether it’s icing on the cake or to make a rubbish-strewn Paris more palatable, there’s a good ten minutes of oo-la-la devoted to parading the latest fashions.
And there’s not just a philosophical undertone – people not what they appear on the surface – but a feminist one, women holding the world together while men whistle. But by and large it’s joyous entertainment, a confection straight out of the Hollywood top drawer, a poor woman having her day in the sun through sheer strength of character.
Unless you’re British or a big fan of arthouse director Mike Leigh or noticed her Oscar nomination in the largely unnoticed The Phantom Thread (2017) Lesley Manville will probably have passed you by. She nabbed a cult following as the dumped-upon lead in comedy series Mum (2016-2019) and picked up a wider audience as Princess Margaret in The Crown, but mostly she’s known for a certain kind of acting, where she can change expression 20 times in a minute without ostensibly doing anything different. Just like her predecessors, Smith, Dench and Mirren.
You can’t take your eyes off her, which is quite feat when she’s up against French screen royalty (perhaps a “tresor national”) Isabelle Huppert (Elle, 2016). Alba Baptista (Warrior Nun series) could well be the breakout star here though Lucas Bravo definitely runs her close. I saw Bravo in Ticket to Paradise (2022) and the characters there and here could not be more different. Ellen Thomas (Golden Years, 2016), Lambert Wilson (Benedetta, 2021), Anna Chancellor (For Love or Money, 2019) and Jason Isaacs (Operation Mincemeat, 2021) have smaller roles.
Director Anthony Fabian (Skin, 2008) adds deeper issues to a movie that was crying out to be all surface. He co-wrote the screenplay with Carroll Cartwright (What Maisie Knew, 2012) based on the classic Paul Gallico novel.
The new documentary on Audrey Hepburn – the Queen of Chic – and my reference to the making of the Valley of the Dolls in “My Books of the Year” blog made me wonder just how important fashion had become to movie marketing in the 1960s. So I did some digging. And found that the this particular decade had indeed been a golden age for Hollywood fashion.
Although actresses had set fashion trends before – Lana Turner’s turtleneck sweater as evening wear, for example, Marlene Dietrich in pants, Carole Lombard’s shirts and Greta Garbo’s pillbox hat while Warner Brother’s star Kay Francis was often in reviews referred to as a clothes-horse – fashion had not previously been given the hard sell. Throughout the 1960s, that was remedied.
The new attitude to fashion as a marketing tool was instigated after a piece of market research. In 1960 United States market research company Sindlinger carried out consumer investigation on behalf of Universal that came to the conclusion that women made up 58 per cent of the audience going to see seven of the top ten pictures. In consequence, the studio decided to target the female audience with a marketing approach that would specifically appeal to that gender, namely fashion. First picture to benefit from this change of direction was Doris Day vehicle Midnight Lace (1960). Universal was a step ahead of the rest but Paramount was soon leading the field thanks to the impact on female fashion made by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).
In 1962 Paramount celebrated the fact that Edith Head was the industry’s only full-time contracted designer by hosting a fashion show on the penthouse set of the studio’s Come Blow Your Horn (1963) starring Frank Sinatra. The event was called “Edith Head’s Penthouse Party.” Being showcased were costumes from eleven of the designer’s current or forthcoming movies. The cheapest outfit on show cost just $2.89 (worn by Patricia Neal in Hud – known at the time as Hud Bannon) while the most expensive (for Jill St John in Come Blow Your Horn) set the studio back $3,700. In total the studio spent $420,000 on costumes for the movies.
As well as the two films mentioned above, other pictures in the Edith Head portfolio given a marketing push because of her fashion input included Elvis Presley vehicle Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) co-starring Stella Stevens, comedy Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963) with Jackie Gleason and Glynis Johns, comedy Who’s Got the Action (1962) headlining Dean Martin and Lana Turner, and France Nuyen as A Girl Called Tamiko (1962). Also involved were Jerry Lewis numbers It’s Only Money (1962) and The Nutty Professor (1963), John Wayne adventure Donovan’s Reef (1963), Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward romantic comedy Samantha (later renamed A New Kind of Love, 1963) and Debbie Reynolds in My Six Loves (1963).
The outfits were modelled by some of the film’s stars including St John, Stevens, Nuyen, Barbara Rush and Phyllis Maguire (also from Come Blow Your Horn), Myoshi Umieti and Martha Hyer (also from A Girl Called Tamiko) and Elizabeth Allen (Donovan’s Reef). Also on hand were four Japanese models and a quartet of actresses making the transition from modelling – Patricia Olsen who had a small part in Samantha, Pat Jones, Mary Morlas and Olavee Parsons. John Wayne, David Janssen (My Six Loves) and Cesar Romero (Donovan’s Reef) also put in an appearance but drew the line at modeling.
However, the big commercial push for Hollywood fashions came from My Fair Lady (1964). The impact of the Hepburn look in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was accidental, rather than deliberate. But from the outset the bulk of the promotional activity for the Lerner and Loewe musical was based around the costumes designed by Cecil Beaton. Whether or not the public could afford such flamboyant outfits was not uppermost in the minds of fashion editors – what Hepburn wore was just so stunning and converted into fabulous editorial spreads, especially for the magazines and newspaper supplements which by this time were mainlining on color, that it created a tsunami of marketing material.
In 1967 costumes hit a commercial peak with a record $12 million budget in total allocated to wardrobes. A total of $8 million was spent on just 15 movies. Easily topping the list was musical Camelot (1967) at $2.25 million while Doctor Dolittle (1967) racked up $1 million, Star! (1968) $750,000 and Funny Girl (1968) $500,000. Three hundred fashion editors attended a fashion show at the Plaza Hotel in New York for a first glimpse of the clothes worn in Funny Girl.
One year earlier Universal had pushed the boat out marketing-wise for the outfits designed by Yves St Laurent for Jean Seberg in Moment to Moment (1966). That same year Warner Bros had focused on fashion for its promotion of the fashion-conscious Kaleidoscope (1966). Stars Warren Beatty and Susannah York might as well have been fashion models given the range of outfits they wore and the movie’s Pressbook claimed the clothes specially created for the picture were on the biggest selling-points for a movie in years especially as most “in” stores “know about the kicky, eye-arresting swingy ‘mod’ fashion clothes which are all the rage.”
Candice Bergen, a former model, caused a sensation in Paris – where she was shooting Vivre pour Vivre (1967) with Yves Montand – when she participated in the Dior show. Her unexpected appearance as well as the clothes she wore received huge publicity. Also in 1967, MGM took out a full-page advertisement in Variety to, among other things, proclaim the impact of Doctor Zhivago on female fashion – “the world is wearing the Zhivago look.”
Expenditure was not an issue. A red velvet cloak worn by Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) cost an eye-popping $35,000 while Samantha Eggar’s fourteen costumes in Doctor Dolittle each cost between $7,000 and $14,000. The price of Vanessa Redgrave’s wedding dress in Camelot was $12,000. Five gowns at a total of $17,000 made for Judy Garland for Valley of the Dolls (1967) were discarded when the actress was sacked and they did not fit replacement Susan Hayward.
But it wasn’t just female fashions that benefitted from movie spinoffs. Male fashions seen in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) were adapted for commercial retail use by Geoffrey Beane and Donald Brooks, who were so convinced (mistakenly) that the movie would be a hit straight off the bat that the clothes appeared on racks long before the movie was released and the pair had to wait until the next year before demand for the movie turned into interest in its fashion.
In fact, men had always been a part of fashion marketing for the movies. Even a film as male-oriented and action-filled as The Guns of Navarone (1961) was given a fashion slant as a means of attracting a female audience – as I discovered when writing a book on the making of the film. “Navarone Blue” – was officially adapted by the British Colour Council while “Navarone Gold” was developed for the Colour Association of the United States. Both dyes were marketed to the manufacturers of automobiles, interior design and fabrics such as bedspreads. Grecian fashion was sold in 50 department stores including Macy’s. And it was written into the contracts of all the female stars that they wear clothes of either colour at premieres.
Lee Marvin had become an unlikely fashion icon and to take advantage of this new status MGM set up “coast-to-coast” promotions for Point Blank (1967). Highlander Clothes developed a fashion line as a marketing tie-up with over 60 stores from all over the country participating. Alcatraz – where part of the movie was filmed – was the location for a fashion shoot that went out in a three-page layout to the 20 million readers of Life magazine under the heading “Well-Dressed Moll Styles in Alcatraz.”
At the end of the decade another male-oriented picture, Downhill Racer (1969), was sold via a fashion marketing campaign. Steve McQueen, the epitome of cool, became a hook for fashion marketing, especially after The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) while Eli Wallach was an unlikely male model in upmarket male magazines. Earlier, for another male-dominated story, Seven Days in May (1964), director John Frankenheimer had been pictured wearing a Cardinal custom-made suit in an ad in Gentleman’s Quarterly. More in keeping with old-fashioned publicity gimmickry, for that film Paramount had also hired designer Mollie Parnis to create a suit for women that could be worn seven different ways on seven different days.
SOURCES: “Women Biggest Picture-Goers, So U Laces Midnight Campaign with Fashions,” Variety, Sep 7, 1960, 16 ; “Fashion Omnibus On 11 Features, By Edith Head,” Variety, Oct 31, 1962, 18; “H’wood Fashions Boom Year,” Oct 4, 1967, 5 ; “Paris Fashions – 1967,” Variety, Feb 15, 1967, 2; advertisement, Doctor Zhivago, Variety, Jan 4, 1967, 37.; Pressbook, Kaleidoscope; Pressbook, Point Blank; Pressbook, Seven Days in May; Brian Hannan, The Making of the Guns of Navarone (Baroliant, 2013) p153-154; Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater near You (McFarland 2016) p186.