One Day That Summer: Shirley MacLaine on the Set of “Can Can”

One Day That Summer Shirley MacLaine by Bob Willoughby  
Summer may be over, but the series One Day That Summer continues on the blog with my conversations with photographers and photography collectors to bring you exclusive stories from behind the lens, whether travel photography or pictures from the movie sets.
He wanted to tell a story, not sell a story, through his photographs. Bob Willoughby introduced photojournalism to a previously highly staged field and revealed the actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood “as themselves, not merely as the characters they played”. He would roam the set freely, mingle with directors and actors, invent the remote-camera, hide behind the crew, become part of the decor – spontaneous moments look best on film, always, and, in that regard, a good photographer is the one you don’t even get to see – and granted the public unprecedented, unedited access behind the closed doors of Hollywood. Willoughby, who studied film at the University of South California and design with renowned graphic designer Saul Bass at the Kahn Institute of Art, loved the big screen and those on it, and it just shows that his work stemmed from passion for and understanding of cinema. This portrait of Shirley MacLaine, on the set of the film Can Can, 1959, is proof of the wonderful perception with which the photographer captured the actors and directors on and off the set, in moments of repose and high drama.

I have talked to David Fahey, the owner of the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles to find out just what it was that gained Bob Willoughby the trust and backstage access of the first rate actors of the ’50s and ’60s, and whether they truly do not make movie stars like they used to. The Fahey/Klein Gallery is one of the leaders in the exhibition and sales of fine art photography, devoted to the enhancement of the public’s appreciation of the medium of photography, with an extensive activity in curating and collecting the works of some of the most appreciated photographers of the 20th century.

“He was a smart observer and he recognized the soul
of the story, like he could also identify
the soul of his subjects.”

Many film-makers are very particular about the set photographers they allow to document their work. Bob Willoughby was, in fact, Hollywood’s first behind the scenes photographer, the first “unit photographer”, the one who made the movie stars human, capturing some of the most famous and best actors of the 1950s and 1960s with their guard down, not posing for the camera, at their highs and lows. And yet, they trusted him completely. What was it that gained him their trust?
He was simply an excellent photographer whose distinctive images not only captured the humanity in each subject, but were also dramatic, memorable, and interpretative portraits. His first LIFE Magazine cover, of Judy Garland during the filming of “A Star is Born” exemplified his special talent. For other subjects thereafter, it was easy to trust a photographer who had the endorsement of Warner Bros., Judy Garland, and LIFE Magazine. They all trusted him and he came through, thus, communicating to potential subjects that you can trust he will make them look great and memorable. In the movie business, this is what matters most.

Sydney Pollack wrote in the introduction to Willoughby’s 2003 autobiography: “Sometimes a film-maker gets a look at a photograph taken on his own set and sees the ‘soul’ of his film in one still photograph. It’s rare, but it happens. It happened to me in 1969, the first time I looked at the work of Bob Willoughby during the filming of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?.” What do you think was Bob’s secret in his ability to capture the entire essence of a film in a photograph?
Bob’s secret was his talent, experience, and curiosity. When he worked on a film, he was there every day. He probably read the script beforehand. I think, during the filmmaking process he recognized the moments that were most meaningful to the overall story. In a sense, he was editing—in his head—what he was seeing being filmed. Because of many takes, he had the opportunity to refine the essence of the film, which he was viewing being made. He was a smart observer and he recognized the soul of the story, like he could also identify the soul of his subjects.

Is there still interest in the Old Hollywood in the collecting world?
Yes, there is interest in collecting early Hollywood photographs. The best films live forever. The best actors and actresses also live forever. These subjects represent different ideas and thoughts people have. Their portraits are collectable also because they represent a time and place that we want to remember. People in the United States, Europe and Asia love old Hollywood films, and the actors that appeared in them, continue to be recognizable in photographs. The photography that came from the best Hollywood photographers has significantly influenced the style of later photographers from Edward Steichen to Helmut Newton, among many others.

Do you think this interest in the old Hollywood could also stem from the fact that the quality of stardom has been absolutely debased, and that, back then, stars were individuals? Now it’s like they come out of the same factory.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, stars were primarily seen in the movies that were made and, occasionally, in a magazine profile. Today, there are many more platforms to disseminate entertainment and news, including entertainment news programs (devoted to the “real lives” of Hollywood stars “behind-the-scenes”). The audiences today can’t get enough information on their favorite stars. Access to this information is ubiquitous. Select stars today are hungry for exposure, and the competition is fierce. Their ever-present face seems like it is everywhere. The press agents and news agencies help with this process. Consequently, it appears like today’s stars are coming out of the same factory.

The smart personalities control their image – monitor how often their press is disseminated – and make sure their image appears in the most upper-end, influential media outlets (i.e. Vanity Fair, Oprah Winfrey etc.).

I think the right objective is to limit one’s exposure, like Bob Dylan, who you only hear about occasionally. When press and exposure does occur, it appears more interesting and appealing. The biggest stars really control their image.

The wild cards are the paparazzi and the exploitative fan magazines. These two factors can have a negative effect and need to be controlled as much as possible.

photo by Bob Willoughby, courtesy of The Fahey/Klein Gallery

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