Ross Hunter: Beautiful Dreamer
What single human being said all of the following:
• "Glamour is locked in the closet and someone has misplaced the key,"
• "I don't want to hold a mirror up to life as it is. I just want to show the part which is attractive,"
• "Glamour is important be-cause it gives the average guy a chance to dream of getting out, the average woman a chance to dream of getting her hair done and wearing a pearl necklace."
If you guessed Blanche Du Bois--guess again. These are pearls of wisdom from a man who could have taught Blanche a few things about how to show herself in the right light. In fact, this is a man who did show old-style stars, from Barbara Stanwyck to Lana Turner, how to lure an entire generation of moviegoers into the dark to be property illuminated themselves.
From the '50s through the early '70s producer Ross Hunter, the most consistently money-making producer ever, ruled Hollywood, and it was his vision of Glamour that helped crown him, and keep him, king. Magnificent Obsession. All That Heaven Allows. Tammy Tell Me True. Imitation of Life. Pillow Talk. Midnight Lace. Back Street. Madame X. The Thrill of It All. Thoroughly Modem Millie. Airport. All these movies--pastel-colored tearjerkers, no-sex-please-we're-virgins farces, toney-women-in-jeopardy potboilers--were woozy with an over-plush chic that people referred to as "The Ross Hunter Touch." Critics mocked Hunter for making "women's pictures," moist with nostalgia for stars and movie conventions of the '30s and '40s. One wag said Hunter was to movies what Liberace was to music; another called him a "sanctimonious apostle of old-movie-queen glamour and the kitsch of our ancestors." Yet for nearly two decades, Hunter so classed up Universal Studios--home of low-budget flicks featuring talking mules and creatures from the black lagoon--that the tight-fisted bosses ceded to him an astonishing 25 percent of the take on his movies. All the more remarkable when you consider that only three of his 60-odd releases failed to make money, and that his hits rank among the biggest cash cows the studio assembly line ever spawned.
How did Hunter work his magic? "Universal wouldn't give me money to buy great scripts, so I had to depend on a look, an image," he says, radiating a vitality that belies his age--he must be sixtyish. "Universal thought I was crazy," he adds huskily, "but I believed that an industry that produced two or three hundred movies a year had to make four or five pictures about the beautiful people."
Seated in the study of his eye-popping house on a Hollywood mountain top, with "101 Favorite Melodies "-type offerings such as "Sweet Leilani" noodling in the back-ground, Hunter lays out his basic winning strategy. "I thought: why not give people a chance to fantasize, to use my pictures as a crutch if they need that? I knew that the only way I'd be given ranking was if the public could identify with what I put on the screen, and wanted more. I'd go out on tour and meet my audiences, listen to the kinds of movies they said they wanted. Whoever heard of a producer going out on the road to sell a movie right after he finishes it? Taking not necessarily the star, but the star's ward-robe, on tour? Or giving big premiere parties, lots of which I paid for? But a producer has to have a handshake with the public, to find out what will tear them away from their homes. I went out there creating an image for myself through my movies, saying, 'You're going to see a picture with real stars looking glamorous in beautiful gowns on beautiful sets. No kitchen sinks. No violence. No pores. No messages.' And it worked.
"I always went on the road with a theme, like There's no such thing as an unattractive woman.' I'd take along [costume de-signer] Jean Louis, and all the dresses he'd designed for my movie. International models were part of the package, and we'd stage gorgeous fashion shows for women's clubs all over the country. The point was this: you can't buy these clothes, but you can buy a movie ticket to see them again. As a result, those women became fans who turned out to see my pictures whether they were good or bad. They knew that when the credits said, 'A Ross Hunter Production,' they were sure they'd know what to expect."
They did. Hunter's "feel" for what his public wanted seemed near-telepathic. Audiences knew that a ticket to a Ross Hunter movie bought one the spectacle of such aging divas as Jane Wyman and Susan Hayward emoting like fury through layers of lacquer, pink gels and camera lenses gooey with Vaseline. The movies were corn--straight, no chaser-- with positively no winking at the audience. Hunter's best films--most often directed full throttle by Douglas Sirk, who called them "a combination of kitsch and craziness and trashiness"--soar way, way over the top. In Magnificent Obsession, playboy-turned-surgeon Rock Hudson selflessly restores the sight of Jane Wyman, the woman whom he had earlier blinded and widowed in one fell swoop. In Imitation of Life, tawny Susan Kohner passes for white and becomes an L.A. showgirl whose specialty number features her practically dry-humping a champagne glass. In the same film, Hunter cast 39-year-old Lana Turner as a struggling model/actress, flaring her nostrils to declare, "I'm going up and up and up and nobody's going to pull me down!" Turner was, at the time, an international figure of scandal whose teenage daughter had recently stabbed her mother's dark, sexy lover--and Hunter saw the wisdom in having her play a famous star who competes with her teenage daughter for her dark, sexy lover. Imitation of Life, indeed. Ross Hunter movies, bless their chintz- and jewel-encrusted hearts, are what movies--and Hollywood--are all about.
By the time he delivered the one-two punch of Thoroughly Modern Millie and Airport in the late '60s (those films were, up to that time, two of Universal's biggest money-makers ever|, he looked infallible. Then something unraveled, as it surely must with any moviemaker whose success is predicated on the delicate balancing act of trying to keep two steps ahead of the public's ever-changing fancy. The so-called "now" era that began in 1969 with the runaway hit Easy Rider and continued through Last Tango in Paris, dawned overnight. Studio bosses desperate to prove their coolness grew their hair longer, dropped "groovy" and "far out" into their speech, and, searching frantically for the next freak hit, signed up every inexperienced film school grad in sight.
In the midst of the '60s "revolution," Hunter could not have seemed more "old hat" than when he came to market with Lost Horizon, a pricey, lumbering, over-hyped, star-packed musical remake of Frank Capra's Shangri-La fantasy. "Only Ross Hunter," wrote critic Judith Crist, "would remake a 1937 movie into a 1932 movie." Re-cut by the studio but still shunned by audiences, Lost Horizon was a Howard the Duck, a Bonfire of the Vanities, a Hudson Hawk, in an era when bigtime debacles weren't a monthly occurrence, With an astonishing record of hits behind him, Hunter made one $5 million mistake, and his detractors were ready with the epitaphs. He was, they claimed, passé, too precious by half. Most damningly, they accused him of having lost his knack for keeping up with the public, let alone anticipating their whims in advance. Spielberg, Silver, Guber and Peters, Simpson and Bruckheimer, take note: If it can happen to Hunter, it can happen to anyone. It does. It will. After Lost Horizon, Hunter signed other deals, and made quite an impact when he moved into the television arena. Today, he's got two projects in development that promise to return him to the big screen.
Why not? With robotic conservatism back in fashion and all Hollywood barking up the return of "family entertainment," you can see neo-Hunter-ism seeping its way back into theaters. Director Pedro Almodovar pays him homage with the decor and stylized acting of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Some of David Lynch's wackiest stuff on the early 'Twin Peaks" offered more than a soupcon of Hunter. John Waters swears by him. Be-fore directing Soapdish, Michael Hoffman reportedly screened three Hunter movies for his crew and cast and more or less said: "Do that." (Too bad they didn't.) And what, after all, are Pretty Woman, Beaches, Stella, Back-draft, and Dying Young but vintage Hunter-type pictures, recycled for the '90s?
Mention all this to Hunter and he chalks the films off to a resurgence of glamour--a commodity which, he says, must make a comeback. "Glamour can have many fingers," he intones, after gently scolding a maid who brings tumblers of soda ("Not paper napkins, please, the linens"), "It's a look, a feeling, something that turns your head. A very special opportunity to be some-thing other than yourself. Glamour is an attitude: you can get glamour just by painting your bedroom a different color. Stars don't exist anymore because they have no energy. No mystery."
Hunter himself does what he can to preserve what mystery there is surrounding past stars. "I won't discuss the private lives of my stars. I've already sent back a huge advance to a very big publisher because they wanted my autobiography filled with gossip about this or that actor." So he won't drop a dime on the ravenous supernova whom, legend says, he supplied with a constant flow of well-built young men and vats of Scotch? Or the one who displayed to crew members like medals of honor her black-and-blue marks from the rough trade she favored?
"When I be-came a producer, I had to succeed," he explains. "No matter what I had to do. No matter what it cost me. I thought: Look, I'm dealing with actors--people who are very much in need of sex and love. The majority of them didn't get it. I'm going to have to cope with that if I am, to succeed. Keep it clean, if I could--but if I couldn't, keep it private. I learned to play the game. Hold my head high. Not be ashamed of what I'm doing. Maybe you want to cry, but if it helps you to get where you want to go, you do it." After a moment, Hunter says quietly, "You see, I had been such a flop as an actor."
The story of how Ross Hunter, né Martin Fuss, the absurdly good-looking youngest of three kids of a Cleveland housewife and clothier, became a Columbia Pictures contract player unspools like a flashback sequence from one of his own movies. He grew up "seeing the movies starring the Crawfords, the Bacalls, and sneaking up to the balcony of the local movie palace to watch Lana Turner and Robert Taylor in Johnny Eager, just dreaming I could touch her." He received his masters degree from Western Reserve University, and was teaching when the head of casting at Paramount called him to say: "We've just received a petition, with some pictures of you, from your students. They think you should be in movies." He eventually signed a seven-year contract with Harry Cohn at Columbia and wound up becoming a self-de-scribed "bobby-soxer's delight" in such mid-'40s "B"-movies as Hit the Hay and Sweetheart of Sigma Chi.
"Making $1,500 a week and pulling more fan mail than Cary Grant and Glenn Ford" convinced Hunter that he was "the greatest thing that ever happened to acting." Few agreed. After 20-odd movies, Cohn dropped him--"a terrible, terrible shock, because when you're big in this town, you're huge, whether or not you deserve it. The minute you're out, every door in town slams in your face," On the ad-vice of the superb actress Ann Sheridan, Hunter studied film production at night and wound up in the low-budget feature department at Universal. There, in 1952, he cut his teeth on "awful, ridiculous Audie Murphy westerns or tits-and-sand pictures starring Yvonne De Carlo that I had to make for two-and-a-half dollars." His pictures made profits his bosses could not ignore.
The reel Ross Hunter kicked in when, scrounging around Universal's story department, he ran across an unproduced soap, "All I Desire", and decided to ride glamour as his ticket out of Palookaville. He set out to rework All Desire in the manner of Stella Dallas, the classic Barbara Stanwyck movie of 1937 that for him epitomized "the glamour, the escape, the entertainment of movies of producers like Goldwyn, Mayer, Selznick and Hal Wallis." Universal was not convinced there'd be an audience for such nonsense, and threw Hunter an unglamorous, paltry $400,000 budget. But Hunter went for broke-- by calling Stanwyck herself. "Miss Stanwyck, I'll be honest," he gushed. "All I Desire has schmaltz and I stole everything I could from Stella Dallas, which is my favorite movie. I even stole the ending!" Stanwyck broke in, saying, "What the hell are you talking about?" before telling Hunter that she made $150,000 a movie. But Hunter knew Stanwyck's last few films had not done well, so he pitched a dif-ferent style of deal. She listened. In the end, she agreed to take $25,000 and a hefty percentage. The movie returned its investment. Six times over.
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