Nowhere has the poignant complexity of blondness been more tantalizingly embodied than by the screen sirens of the 20th century. But the Hollywood blonde didn’t start out as a bombshell.
Once upon a time, she was the waifish good girl crystallized by “Little Mary” Pickford, who was still sporting banana curls and playing plucky ingénues when she was 30 and married to Douglas Fairbanks Sr., with whom she helped found United Artists. Let the heavy-lidded Theda Bara and the knowing Clara Bow play the vamp and the sexually liberated flapper. The shrewd Pickford remained everyone’s daughter, at least on screen. When she cut off her banana curls for a fashionable bob, her husband wept.
Women don’t stay little girls forever. Perhaps it took the tough times of the 1930s for that tough message to sink in, via two pretty tough broads – Mae West and Jean Harlow. With her hourglass figure, oft-imitated purr and superbly timed double entendres, West left little doubt as to what she wanted, and it wasn’t to save the family farm while preserving her virtue.
“Why don’t you come up sometime and see me,” she propositions a shy, young Cary Grant as she gives him the once-over in “She Done Him Wrong.” West let Hollywood know “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.”
So was Jean “Baby” Harlow, who starred in “Platinum Blonde” and “Bombshell.” Both a man’s woman and a mama’s girl – she took her mother’s name as her stage name – Harlow slinked around in plunging, clinging gowns that defied wardrobe malfunction. Her manner was just as direct.
“Do you know that the guy said that machinery is going to take the place of every profession,” her ballsy trophy wife informs Marie Dressler’s lofty actress in the spot-on “Dinner At Eight.
Dressler stops short, eyeing her before responding, “Oh, my dear, that’s something you need never worry about.”
It was a measure of Harlow’s transparence that Dressler’s retort is not meant unkindly. You couldn’t help but root for Harlow, whether she was sporting sparkle and satin or corralling Gable by standing up to him. And you can well imagine that when she died of kidney failure too young at 26 – betrayed by the body others had worshipped, a common bombshell fate – that the commissary at MGM went silent.
West and Harlow freed the blond bombshell to be whatever she wanted to be, even if it was a murderous adulteress, albeit in a fetching white turban and matching short, do-me shorts (Lana Turner in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”) or your more garden-variety unhappy wife in peekaboo bangs (Veronica Lake in “The Blue Dahlia.”)
That freedom reached its zenith at mid-century. The 1950s was a bouquet of blondes – spunky and virginal (Doris Day, though she played beautifully against type in “Love Me or Leave Me”), musical and virginal (Shirley Jones), elegant and regal (the soon-to-be Princess Grace Kelly).
And then there was Marilyn. (See related story.) No one was blonder or more bombshell-like. But the person who gave her a run for her money in blond ambition was not a blonde. Indeed, he hardly had any hair. Over the years, Alfred Hitchcock would give us many blondes – Ingrid Bergman’s warm, honey-haired psychoanalyst in “Spellbound” and good bad girl in “Notorious;” Joan Fontaine’s mouse that roared in “Suspicion” and “Rebecca.” But his greatest contribution to blondness was the bombshell’s antithesis, the so-called “Hitchcock blonde” – cool, contained, patrician, always ladylike but certainly no lady when it came to deceiving men.
“Suspense is like a woman,” Donald Spoto quotes Hitch as saying in his biography “The Dark Side of Genius.” “The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement. …The conventional big-bosomed blonde is not mysterious. …The perfect woman of mystery is one who is blonde, subtle and Nordic.”
She was incarnated by Grace Kelly’s inquisitive man-hunters in “Rear Window” and “To Catch A Thief,” Eva Marie Saint’s quiet double agent in “North By Northwest;” Janet Leigh’s thieving adulteress in “Psycho;” and less successfully, Tippi Hedren’s vulnerable damsels in “The Birds” and “Marnie.” But the quintessence of the Hitchcock blonde was revealed by a woman who had no interest in being one, Kim Novak in “Vertigo,” named the best film ever by Sight & Sound magazine’s recent poll of critics.
Much has been made about the parallels between “Vertigo’s” haunting twist on the Pygmalion myth and Hitch’s obsession with actresses like Hedren and Vera Miles, whom he sought to control with long-term contracts. (See HBO’s “The Girl” and the excellent feature “Hitchcock.”)
Like James Stewart’s dogged, damaged detective in “Vertigo,” who transforms a blowsy brunette into his memory of an unattainable blonde (Novak in a dual role) with tragic results, Hitchcock seemed to have been in thwarted love with an ideal that existed only in his mind.
“This man changed and dressed up his woman, which seems like the reverse of stripping her naked,” he told Spoto. “But it amounts to the same thing.”
As Spoto, a New Rochelle native who taught there at Iona College and at Fairfield University, observes:
“Like Hitchcock’s motion pictures, the most carefully calculated feminine personae … tease the intelligence and the imagination before responding to emotion and desire. And with all of them, as with the prototypical Victorian, hair is an ultimate erotic fixation.”
Bye, bye blondie
The ’60s and the advent of feminism marked the beginning of the end for the blond bombshell. I mean, even Barbie became an astronaut and president of the United States.
Oh sure, there were still diluted Marilyns, Jayne Mansfield, whose 40D breasts got more attention than her reported 160 IQ, Diana Dors and Mamie Van Doren; Euro sex kitten Brigitte Bardot; and blond Bond girls Ursula Andress, who rose Venus-like from the sea in “Dr. No.” But the open-heartedness that made the bombshell so enchanting was lost beneath the slutty dumb blonde veneer that is anathema to feminism.
Even the cool, ladylike Hitchcock blonde was replaced in pop cultural iconography by a cool, ladylike brunette – Jacqueline Kennedy.
In the succeeding decades, there have been stabs at reviving the bombshell but with varying results. Dolly Parton, a talented singer-songwriter, has played it for laughs; Madonna, for cold, hard cash; Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, for tabloid farce; Anna Nicole Smith, for Marilyn-size tragedy.
Those actresses who could bridge the bombshell and the Hitchcock blonde – Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron – are more interested in playing characters than portraying personas, although Theron has paid tribute to these two faces of blondness in her ads for Dior’s “J’Adore” fragrance, which have her, through the magic of technology, meeting up with Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe backstage before she hits the runway.
With today’s emphasis on character acting, actresses keep changing hair colors. Is Emma Stone, who can be funny and siren-like, a blonde or a redhead? It depends on the role.
Still, like James Stewart in “Vertigo,” we find the blonde irresistible. And like him, we’ll continue to pursue the dream of her, even if it brings us to the edge of the precipice.
Gentlemen, it seems, aren’t the only ones who prefer blondes.
Because they’re a minority in many cultures, blonds have possessed a certain mystique in history and the imagination. The A-list Greek gods – Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Athena – are fair-haired sibs. Both the archangel Michael (see the painter Raphael) and his arch nemesis Lucifer (see William Blake) have been depicted as blonds, as have their fleshly battleground, Adam and Eve (see Milton’s “Paradise Lost’).
Homer’s Achilles is a blond. Alexander the Great, who took Achilles for his ancestor and role model, was a real one, reportedly sprinkling gold dust in his hair for effect. The first Caesars, who took their cue from him, happened to be blonds, too.
Jesus has been depicted in film and art as a blond, though not without controversy. (See Salvador Dalí’s floating “Last Supper,” which regularly provokes double takes at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art.)
Despite any number of golden male icons – Alan Ladd, Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, whirling like a white dervish atop the train cars of memory – blond male movie stars are considered suspect and lightweight. Remember the brouhaha when Daniel Craig was announced as the new James Bond?
He’s proved terrific, but we still like ’em tall, dark and handsome, perhaps the better to contrast with their fair-haired leading ladies.