Ida Lupino: Queen of the B's

Nashville Scene


REVIEWED: 11-24-97

My way of asking a man to do something on a set is not to boss him around. That isn't in me to do that. I say, 'I've got an idea, and why don't you see if it feels comfortable because I think it would be effective.'--Ida Lupino

At a time when women were all but shut out of the Hollywood power structure, the actress Ida Lupino used her clout as a leading lady to develop and direct her own films. Recognition was not forthcoming. When Andrew Sarris imported the French "auteur theory" to pen The American Cinema (1968), he gave the pioneering actress-turned-director only half a page. (Otto Preminger got four.) In fact, Sarris wrote no more than one sentence about Lupino before reviewing the status of two dozen other women directors as footnotes--and without acknowledging his own role in their fate.

Adding insult to injury, Sarris' wife, Molly Haskell, opportunistically titled her "feminist" volume From Reverence to Rape in 1973, but never mentioned that Lupino's Outrage (1950) was a feminist film about rape. ("[Lupino's] films are conventional, even sexist," Haskell wrote without substantiation.) The film-historical gatekeeper who finally let Lupino in was Martin Scorsese, whose eloquent obituary in the New York Times magazine two years ago is now being used to help promote the release of three of her seven films to videotape.

These three low-budget pulp fictions--Not Wanted, The Hitch-hiker, and The Bigamist--didn't ask politely for inclusion in the pantheon: Rather, as indies by practically the only woman filmmaker of the time, they seized a rare opportunity and ran with it. In fact, the unwed-mother melodrama Not Wanted (1949) became Lupino's (uncredited) debut only after the original director, Elmer Clifton, suffered a heart attack three days into the shoot.

Thus, coproducer Lupino took over the helm--but humbly. As her quote above suggests, she acted "feminine" on the set instead of on the screen, trading her clout as a Warner Bros. contract player for a brief run of artistic autonomy that's remarkable for an auteur of either gender. A prototypical indie director, Lupino took disreputable subjects and made them sell--in the process turning a camera on those "not wanted" in '50s America. Hence, it's no small irony that the indie collective she formed with husband Collier Young collapsed after the couple sold it to big-daddy Howard Hughes.

In person, the striking Lupino is said to have projected two sides of herself: one charmingly relaxed, the other intense and a little mean. In a recent (and awful) biography, writer William Donati suggested she may have been bipolar; but even without a clinical condition, Lupino didn't lack for duality. At once a filmmaker and actress, homemaker and career woman, Hollywood insider and indie iconoclast (not to mention the seclusive veteran of four turbulent marriages), she directed like a den mother in one of the most masculine of professions. Not coincidentally, when it came to making films, she identified with everyone. Not Wanted put a human face on "illegitimate pregnancy" in 1949; The Hitch-hiker (1953) found a faint hint of sympathy for a serial killer; and The Bigamist (1953) sought compassion for an artist leading a double life.

Stereotypical as it sounds, Lupino's films are truly distinguished by their empathy--which, as empathy goes, is pretty tough indeed. Her "problem movies" view the problem as mainstream society, while her visual style draws less from melodrama than from film noir and Italian neo-realism. (Donati claims a brief encounter with Roberto Rossellini influenced her greatly.)

Shot on location and set in the open city, the near-doc-like Not Wanted opens on a gritty street-scene as an unwed mom (Sally Forrest) trudges uphill toward the camera, then attempts to wheel away another woman's baby carriage. The film's psychology is equally stark: It's not just the heroine's bastard child who's not wanted, but the unwed mom's own mother doesn't want her either. Likewise, The Hitch-hiker--a noir-ish trip as efficient as Detour--makes a sudden U-turn to chart the vicious circle of neglect. "When I was born," the psycho-killer played by William Talman says, "they took one look at this puss o' mine and told me to get lost." Once again: not wanted.

That Lupino might finally have escaped her own neglect owes to more than Martin Scorsese. Indeed, no one with any faith in film history could have doubted that a movie as brilliantly personal as The Bigamist would remain unknown. For one thing, the film's bizarre love triangle was taken directly from real life: Prior to shooting, producer Collier Young divorced Lupino (who played one of The Bigamist's wives) and married Joan Fontaine (who played the other).

As Lupino's last truly personal project, The Bigamist seems to know that ambitious double lives often lead to a dead-end. But it also evinces a progressive-minded optimism, a deep yearning that can't be kept down. Besides making a case for herself as an auteur, Lupino argues that all of us should be allowed to cultivate that other, secret side of ourselves, no matter the cost.

--Rob Nelson

Other Films by Ida Lupino
Gilligan's Island (tv)

Film Vault Suggested Links
Bitter Moon
The Deep End of the Ocean

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