Sid Avery's Charade
From the new book Hollywood at Home, Sid Avery's portraits of stars at leisure are relics of a more innocent age
Sid Avery was one of America's top photographers to the stars in the days before all of our myths--about ourselves as well as our icons--had been shattered. His beautiful black and white compositions indulged the collective desire to see exotic celebrities in normal, everyday settings, illusions meant to prove that they are, after all, like us. Taken for the most part in his subjects' homes, his photographs were a contradiction in terms; carefully, deliberately staged to look casual and candid. And when those pictures appeared in Look, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post, they were accepted at face value.
The intervening years have, of course, changed the way we see these pictures. They seem disingenuous, calculated to project a particular image that we recognize now to be manufactured.
Always a gentleman, Avery kept his Leicas and Hasselblads away from Hollywood's secret nooks and crannies. He photographed Rock Hudson playing charades with his studio-sanctioned girlfriend and his real lover, yet made certain that the image offered no indication of Hudson's sexual predilections.
Avery was the master of creating relaxed situations. "I usually played it very cool," he remembers. "I'd enter actors' homes and ask them what they were doing that day. They'd tell me, and I'd suggest that they start doing it. I would get people stimulated in situations that seemed very natural.
"I didn't have it in me to hurt or embarrass anyone," says Avery. "I was always aware of my subject's feelings. Because my photographs made people look good, it gave everyone the confidence to pose for me."
"Brando was making breakfast when I arrived, so I wanted to get a shot of him cooking. But his kitchen was really dirty. The junk was about three feet high and there were ants on the floor. I told him to clean up. He looked at me and said, 'Okay.' I got great shots of him taking out the trash. I guess he was amused by my forwardness because I wound up spending most of the day there. After he finished the chores, Brando took out his bongos and I made some shots of him playing. Then he sat back to relax, and I snapped this picture. Supposedly he was a fantastic bongo player, but I don't know good from bad bongo. Do you?"
"Brazzi was like the Valentino of his day, and he played romantic leading parts opposite young beauties like Sophia Loren, Yvette Mimieux, Ava Gardner, and Mitzi Gaynor [pictured here with her husband Jack Bean]. Then one night at a party, I got this shot of him with his wife--but as I had no idea what his wife looked like, I assumed she was his mother! I walked into the room and said, 'Hello Mrs. Brazzi.' I couldn't figure out that relationship."
"When I arrived at Rock's house in the Hollywood Hills, he had just woken up and had not yet showered. While he was in the bathroom, I set up the lights. Just as the water stopped running, the phone rang, and Rock came out to answer it. He had nothing on but a towel wrapped around his waist, he was soaking wet, and-- needless to say--he looked really great, so I asked, 'Do you mind?' To my surprise, he nodded that it would be okay, and I took the shot. It's the kind of picture that you couldn't set up if you wanted to."
"I remember next to nothing about that shoot. I might have seen the book and suggested that she take it out on the balcony. Or, more likely she brought it out herself because she was plugging the book. It was such a set-up, such an ordinary shooting, that I don't remember anything. Those pants, though, they were really something. In my opinion, it's a picture of a pair of pants."
"Bogie told me to wait in the den while he went upstairs and got changed. Then he turned to me and said, 'Hey, kid, do you want a drink?' it was 8:00 in the morning and I don't drink, but I figured that I better say yes. He filled two tumblers with whiskey and took one with him. Naturally, I dumped my drink in a plant. A quarter of an hour later he came back downstairs to give me five minutes of shooting time. The Bogarts had just moved into a new house and there was a lot to unpack, so, I told him to do that.
"The five minutes came and went, and I was still doing a lot of shooting--out on the patio, in front of the house, near the fireplace while he read to his son--when Bogie began telling me about his boat. He offered to show me a model that he had in the house. I asked if I could photograph him and his son looking at it, and he picked the boy up. It turned out to be a great day because Bogie invited me to shoot him and his friends on the real boat. I finished up and began packing my equipment so I could go home and get changed. That's when Bogie looked down at my feet and said, 'But don't wear those goddamned loafers. I want you to bring a pair of tennis shoes so that you don't fuck up my deck.' "