Mira and Marsha

Artists’ time from Rolex and a gorgeous Golden Age survivor

On December 5, an impressive conclave of artists converged on the New York State Theatre for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. This lovely program gives a cash prize to young artists in various fields and pairs them with distinguished mentors in their métiers—painter Matthias Weischer with David Hockney, singer Susan Platts with Jessye Norman, theater director Lara Foot Newton with Sir Peter Hall, writer Antonio Garcia Angel with Mario Vargas Llosa, choreographer Junaid Jemal Sendi with Saburo Teshigawara, and Thai filmmaker Aditya Assarat with Mira Nair.

Rolex laid on a sumptuous spread and the speakers were delightfully eloquent, particularly Nair, who in introducing Assarat said, “It takes courage to be original, especially for those like me, who have been told for the past few centuries that the West is the mirror in which to see your future. But these four truths I know: Never treat what you do as stepping stone to something else. Do it fully and completely, and only at its fullest do you know where it might lead you. Let the heart inform the brain. Prepare, communicate, but at the moment of working, allow inspiration from any quarter—a carpenter, street child, or the light of the moon. Be brave and prepare to be lonely and cultivate stamina. Beware the fruits of action—serve what you do purely and not thinking of the reward, which can really confuse you, especially in film.”

If I could choose my own mentor for life, it would be actress Marsha Hunt, a true survivor of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her book, “The Way We Wore,” published by Fallbrook and available at The Drama Bookshop, is the perfect Christmas present, a magnificent album of her film career, told completely through photographs of the glamorous gowns she wore in 62 movies. Hunt had always refused to do “cutesy-poo cheesecake” publicity shots, so the studios gave her fashion layouts, instead. These photos lay for years, remarkably preserved, in a closet behind her laundry room in Sherman Oaks, California, before it occurred to Hunt that they might make an interesting book.

“The Way We Wore” led to Hunt meeting artist Mel Odom, whom she described in a recent interview as “my dearest friend. He designed the fashion doll, ‘Gene,’ and had sent me this charming letter about my book because ‘Gene’ is a fictional star of the ‘40s and he was using it as a Bible of authentic fashions of the period. I had never even seen a Barbie doll before, but we both just barely survived a four-day annual ‘Gene Convention’ with people attending from all over the world. Mel replicated his favorite outfit in the book, an Irene gown I wore in William Saroyan’s ‘The Human Comedy,’ and called it ‘Mel Loves Marsha.’ Well, at this convention, they treated me like a superstar, so overwhelming, even more so than in movie days!”

At 88, Hunt is vibrantly intelligent and active, while retaining the swanlike beauty which had her signed to a Paramount contract at age 17, as leading leady in her first film, “The Virginia Judge” (1935). After wasting away as an ingénue, she switched studios to MGM, where, in “These Glamour Girls” (1939), she played a neurotic, aging debutante who commits suicide and established herself as Hollywood’s youngest, most versatile character actress.

I remember seeing Bette Midler years ago, campily introducing her backup Harlettes as “Gale Sondergaard, Lynn Bari, and Marsha Hunt,” and when I mentioned this to Hunt, she cried, “I never heard that! I love it! I never saw her perform but, oh, that’s nice!” Hunt made the 1940 Greer Garson-Laurence Olivier “Pride and Prejudice,” which remains for me the definitive Jane Austen. She played myopic, piano-playing Bennet sister, Mary, and said, “Ann Rutherford and I are the only surviving Bennet sisters from that. Ann and I talked on the phone three days ago. We’ve always been dear friends and have seen each other through a lot.”

Although the great Adrian designed the movie’s 500 costumes, Hunt never met him and, as for Garson, the Queen of the Lot, with whom she made three films, the actress recalled, “I didn’t really know her by end of that third film any better than at the start of the first. She wasn’t cold, but she was all business. When they lined us up for a two-shot, our conversation was always very surface and she’d repair to her dressing room between scenes. Years later I came across her at a fund-raising luncheon for a foundation in the name of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom I knew and adored. Greer greeted me like a long-lost sister, hugging me and I couldn’t believe how warm and interested she suddenly was. I put it together later with some people who knew her very well who said that when she married Texas oilman Buddy Fogelson, he took her to Dallas. It was another world for her––folksy, feet up, plain talk––so far from her English reserve. She had London-ized her Irish beginnings and was as British-ladylike as possible when she came to MGM.”

During the McCarthy Era, Hunt was blacklisted in the industry when her name appeared in the pamphlet, “Red Channels,” for her work against the House of Un-American Activities Committee. In 1947, she joined Humphrey Bogart and others on a flight to Washington to protest the treatment of the Hollywood Ten, filmmakers subpoenaed to testify about Communist activities, who had refused to cooperate.

Hunt recalled, “The atmosphere on that flight was outrage that our industry was being maligned and the public was being scared to death to go to the movies. Every day, headlines were saying that, subliminally, their patriotism was being subverted by Red propaganda tucked into screenplays. We were defending our industry and the First Amendment. We were filmmakers who were concerned citizens, not liking the behavior of the Congressional Committee and how it treated our fellow filmmakers who were not allowed read their own statements. The flight was planned to accentuate the positive by John Huston, William Wyler, and Philip Dunne, none of them remotely interested in Communism, in the interests of equal time to remedy matters. But the press had a field day, misquoting us as befriending Reds.”

Hunt agreed that today’s political climate bares more than passing resemblance to those dark days. She backed John Kerry’s Presidential campaign and said, “I didn’t know what people meant when they said he was stiff. I saw an articulate, involved, informed, caring, gutsy man with 20 years of statesmanship who knew what war felt like and had the courage to talk against it. If only he had made his point in these simple words: War brutalizes nice people and is the ultimate obscenity of so-called civilization. I have felt that way about every war, but to start a war, like this one… Today there is that feeling of a need to conform and that’s what the whole Red Scare was— to control. The enemy was not Communism, but control; people not wanting to make waves, just go along.”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

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