Thursday, December 6, 2012

Striptease on Film: BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (1961)

--> To think of Breakfast At Tiffany's brings many things to mind, from the problematic (Mickey Rooney’s infamous yellowface performance*) to the sublime (that ridiculously perfect Oscar-worthy Cat**). But even if you’ve seen the movie a couple dozen times because it’s your home-alone, laundry-folding, fuzzy-slippers-glass-of-wine-and-ovaries treat (just for instance), you might still forget this scene every time until it’s suddenly upon you: 

The dancer is one Beverly Powers, also known by the stage name Miss Beverly Hills, and she was a for-real, honest-to-goodness burlesque stripper. From Tom Lisanti’s Glamour Girls Of Sixties Hollywood (2008):

Beverly Jean Powers was born in Southern California [in 1937 or ‘39] and graduated from Van Nuys High School … She wed a Los Angeles tree surgeon at a young age. The brunette beauty with the tantalizing 37-24-34 figure then became a striptease artist using the name Miss Beverly Hills. Working mainly in Las Vegas, her act entailed dancing glamorously, dressed in showgirl-type gowns, and gradually removing her clothes until she is clad in a two-piece bikini; during the final minutes on stage, she doffs her top (she always had pasties on underneath). Becoming well-known, Powers was provocatively photographed for a number of men's magazines of the time including The Dude and Knights before giving acting a try.

Elsewhere it’s reported that Miss Beverly Hills had a stormy affair with mobster Mickey Cohen; that her husband Bill Powers was actually a hairdresser rather than a tree surgeon (a completely understandable mixup, really); and that, in December of 1959, “discovered by Chuck Landis, she takes the place of stripper Candy Barr as featured performer in Los Angeles’s Club Largo when Candy goes to prison.” There’s more out there on the interweb about her film and TV performances than her burlesque career - though she does seem to have been cast as a showgirl, burlesquer or stripper fairly often (Viva Las Vegas, Kisses For My President, Angel In My Pocket and an episode of Fantasy Island, to name a few). Apparently she retired from both stripping and acting in the early 1980’s and is now a minister in Maui.

I love this scene for a few reasons, beyond getting to see even a Hollywood-approved slice of this classic performance.

• First: That cape; that dress. (Though Audrey Hepburn was dressed by Hubert de Givenchy, Edith Head was the costume supervisor for the movie … unless that was one of Beverly’s own burlesque costumes?)

• Second: By 1961 the First Golden Age of Burlesque was beginning its transition into the modern strip club; and although who ever knows how accurate the Hollywood Version is of anything? I like to think this is at least something like how it was at the time. I’d like to think that if I were having a bad day (say, tearfully sending my Texas daddy-husband home on a Greyhound bus) I could grab my gay-in-the-novel best friend, slap on some devastatingly glamorous sunglasses, have Nellie Manley pile up my coif as if it were accidentally that fabulous, and head off to a wood-paneled Manhattan lounge to watch a burlesque queen strip to a live band while I get wittily drunk at four o’clock in the afternoon.

• Third: The dialogue in this scene (which doesn’t appear in the novel) (which you should read if you haven’t, it’s heartbreaking and beautiful in a different way to the film) did make me prickly at first. ***  How dare these characters even imply that there’s anything remotely superficial about what I do? It is deep - it is important!

Well, yes. And yet … this is a thing to write about at greater length at some other time (or if you catch me drunk enough backstage on the right night, I’ll slur your ear off about it whether you like it or not and just see if I don’t) but I have been reminding myself a lot of late that being serious about your art and your job doesn’t mean taking yourself too seriously; or, Those Who Work As Giant Stripping Sandwiches Shouldn’t Throw Stones. What I do is, on balance, amusing and superficial - and that’s okay (see: the four-hundred-squillion-dollar, all-pervasive industry that is Pop Music), it’s what makes the transcendent moments of deep importance when they do occur (and they do) all the more resonant for me.

Anyway. Next time you have a laundry-folding, fuzzy-slipper-wearing night off, open up a bottle of wine and dial up Breakfast At Tiffany’s on the interweb – and be sure, when you do, to drink a toast to Miss Beverly Hills.

* Blake Edwards, on the film’s 45th anniversary: “Looking back, I wish I had never done it...and I would give anything to be able to recast it, but it's there, and onward and upward.”

** Whose real name, it appears, was “Orangey .”

*** In case my video-of-the-TV-screen clip is somewhat inaudible, here it is:
Holly: Do you think she’s talented? Deeply and importantly talented?
Paul: No. Amusingly and superficially talented, yes. But deeply and importantly, no.
Holly: Gracious! … Do you think she’s handsomely paid?

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