Sunday 21 January 2018

And God created Marilyn ... and Liz ... and Grace ... and Audrey ...

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe

Nothing fades as fast as fashion, and you might expect that the curvy and often big-boned female movie stars of the 1950s would be of little interest to contemporary males. Not so, according to a recent online poll.

In a vote conducted by the hugely popular online casino roxypalace.com, more than a thousand men were asked to vote on which women were the most attractive over the past 60 years.

Overwhelmingly, it was 1950s stars such as Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe who dominated the vote, and that decade emerged as the most alluring, comfortably beating the 2000s into second place.

The 1960s came third, the 1970s fourth, and the 1980s, that wilderness of big hair and bad fashion, finished way down the field.

The 1940s had been dominated by wartime austerity, film noir and feline femmes fatales, but stars like Rita Hayworth and Katharine Hepburn had hard edges and had to hint their way around the subject of sex.

Lauren Bacall caused quite a stir in To Have and To Have Not in 1944, when she asked Humphrey Bogart if he knew how to whistle, but in the 1950s onscreen sexuality would become more overt, and less subtle.

It was Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor who led the way towards Hollywood's golden age of glamour. Taylor's emergence as a global sex symbol was all the more shocking, because she'd started out as a goody-two-shoes child star in films such as Lassie Come Home and National Velvet.

Bullied into acting as a little girl by her overbearing mother, Taylor had grown weary of juvenile roles and the entire movie business by the time she made her breakthrough performance in George Stevens' 1951 drama, A Place in the Sun.

Though only 17, she was excellent as a spoilt socialite who tempts Montgomery Clift away from his barefoot and pregnant wife.

The young Taylor radiated raw sexual energy, but her studio, MGM, initially didn't know what to do with her, and continued to cast the actress in jarring girl-next-door roles until the mid-1950s, when explosive turns in Giant and Cat on a Hot tin Roof turned her into a superstar.

Her portrayal of the sultry and volatile Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was especially memorable, and a generation of young males were marked forever by the sight of Taylor in a white slip.

Liz Taylor's life would be a rocky road, involving six husbands and a battle with booze, but she remained a byword for old-fashioned Hollywood glamour. Perhaps her greatest rival as a 1950s sex symbol was Marilyn Monroe.

Having survived a dreadful childhood, Monroe became a successful model in the late 1940s before landing small parts in Hollywood comedies and melodramas.

The camera ate her up, and she caught the eye playing minor roles in films such as Monkey Business and All About Eve. Her sex appeal was seismic, but not everyone approved.

After watching the famous scene in Monroe's breakthrough 1953 film Niagara in which she swaggers suggestively away from camera, the veteran actress Constance Bennett remarked "there's a broad with her future behind her".

Performances in films such as Bus Stop, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes made her a global celebrity, and like Liz Taylor, Marilyn's private life became a public soap opera.

But unlike Taylor, Monroe was no street fighter, and the relentless strain of life in the spotlight undoubtedly contributed to her early death.

Monroe might have been at the brasher end of 1950s beauty, but the decade also produced a more refined brand of film actress.

Audrey Hepburn's first love was ballet, but at five-foot-seven she was deemed too tall, and thereafter diverted her energies into acting.

The Belgian-born Hepburn had an on-screen grace and charm that set her apart from her peers. She excelled in romantic comedies (Sabrina, Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany's), but could also hold her own in heavier dramas like The Nun's Story.

Hepburn was a class act, and beloved of fashion designers who rushed to dress her. But she tended to appeal more to women than to men. However, Grace Kelly had fans in both camps.

The child of a no-nonsense Irish-American Philadelphia businessman, Kelly started out in television and on Broadway before being spotted on a Hollywood set by Gary Cooper, who decided she was "different from all these actresses we've been seeing so much of".

She was indeed: cool, blonde, breathtakingly beautiful and intriguingly reserved, Grace might not have been the world's greatest actress but she compensated by being one of the most photogenic people ever.

She got noticed alongside Gary Cooper in High Noon, and in John Ford's Mogambo -- the great director decided that Kelly had "breeding, quality and class". Through the 1950s she became the favourite muse of Alfred Hitchcock in movies like Rear Window and Dial M for Murder.

And Grace Kelly pulled the classiest move of all, by retiring from films before anyone had a chance to get sick of her.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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