So I was watching I Married a Witch last weekend and trying unsuccessfully for the past few days to write a review before I realized that what I really wanted to do was talk about Veronica Lake.
I have a fondness for Veronica Lake that goes well beyond her merits as an actress. It's always a pleasure to see her. Even when you know that offscreen her costars were gnashing their teeth over working with "Moronica Lake," as Raymond Chandler called her, Lake always seems to be having a lot of fun, playing hide-and-seek behind her famous hair, smiling knowingly, and pouting when things don't go her way.
In my Hollywood alternate universe, Howard Hawks takes Lake on as he did that other husky-voiced blonde Lauren Bacall and injects a little more wit and maturity into the Veronica Lake persona. The difference between Bacall and Lake is that Bacall, given the right role, seemed like someone who'd been round the block and had the smarts to prove it. Lake didn't; there was always something a little unreal about her vamping.
In Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, in a role that was purportedly intended for Barbara Stanwyck, Veronica Lake's pose of being the street-smart girl, far more experienced than Joel McCrea's pretentious director, is obviously just that, a pose. In Stanwyck's case, we would have believed it. It doesn't hurt the film, though; it just shifts the dimensions. Sturges seems to take a mischievous pleasure in pitting the 4'11'' Lake against the 6'3" McCrea; she's perpetually clambering into his lap or leaning into him or pushing him into pools. McCrea's grumpiness is in fine contrast to her girlishness. His attraction to her is played like a guy falling for a friend's annoying kid sister.
Veronica Lake's pairing with Alan Ladd was famously because she was the only actress on the Paramount lot that could make him look tall. But their personas matched well too. Ladd, the gruff and rough guy with the face of an "aging choirboy," was like a teenage boy playing at being the tough guy and the sulky Lake was a teenage girl's idea of the femme fatale. She strikes the poses, she looks and talks like a bad girl, but she never feels truly dangerous.
Veronica Lake has earned a legacy as a style icon, but her popularity as an actress burned itself out at an amazing rate. Lake couldn't even last out her decade; she was truly "in" by 1941, skidding by 1944 (after a disastrous turn as a Nazi spy in The Hour Before the Dawn), and completely totaled by 1949, at the ripe old age of 27. Time is rarely kind to "It Girls" and Lake's particular brand of pouty, girlish charm probably wouldn't have aged very well even if her career had been better handled and her personal problems not gotten in the way.
The last fifteen years of her life were one slow decline into alcoholism, mental illness, and poverty and she died at age fifty, looking (based on her appearance in the 1970 exploitation film Flesh Feast) twenty years older. Lake was self-deprecating in interviews ("You could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision"), but she still had her pride. During Lake's latter-day stint as a cocktail waitress, her former lover Marlon Brando sent her a check for one thousand dollars. Lake had it framed.
Part of my fascination with Veronica Lake comes from hearing story after story by her frustrated costars; she seemed to have an incredible ability to spark the dislike of even the most easygoing costars. After Sullivan's Travels, McCrea refused to work with her again, saying that "Life is too short for two films with Veronica Lake." During the filming of I Married a Witch, she and March openly despised each other. March on Lake: "a brainless little blonde sexpot." Lake on March: "a pompous poseur." Lake would play pranks against her costar like hiding a weight under her dress for a scene where March had to carry her. She would also take revenge on Brian Donlevy, another disparager of her talent, in The Glass Key. When it came time for her to punch him in one scene, she almost knocked him out. In her autobiography, Lake would attribute this burst of pugilism to growing up in Brooklyn. Eddie Bracken, her costar for Star-Spangled Rhythm, said once that "She was known as 'The Bitch' and she deserved the title." Even her screen partner Ladd reportedly never warmed up to her, though I can't find any quotes from him on the subject.
It's hard not to feel some sympathy for someone so miserably unpopular. Marilyn Monroe drove her costars up the wall too, but they forgave her because well, she was Marilyn Monroe. Maybe Lake was as bitchy as her costars gave her credit for; it's difficult to tell where bitchiness left off and real mental illness began. Unlike other stars who died the slow, painful death of the addict, like Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland, Veronica Lake didn't seem to inspire the same feelings of protectiveness and affection. It's a fair bet to say that she made others as miserable as she made herself. However, she did not deserve her eventual fate: alcoholic, forgotten, estranged from her children and loved only by her nurses.
Whatever she was offscreen, onscreen she radiated warmth and charm. There was an iciness to her beauty and to the world-weariness her characters often affected, but Lake herself didn't play it cold. Some femme fatales could maneuver men via lust or manipulation. Lake melted them. One of the pleasures of her movies with Alan Ladd is waiting for the moment when the grim Ladd suddenly breaks out in a boyish smile, dropping his cool persona under the influence of Lake. Fredric March may have hated Lake on the set of I Married a Witch, but it sure doesn't show in the film. The more his character, the stuffy Wallace Wooley, tries to tell Lake's witch that he doesn't love her, the more he finds himself stroking her hair and gazing into her eyes. In the aforementioned Sullivan's Travels, McCrea learns affection for her as he learns tolerance for other people. The image of McCrea's arm stealing around Lake is as tender as anything ever directed by Preston Sturges.
Back in 1998, Kim Basinger won her only Oscar for her supporting turn as Lynn Bracken, the Veronica Lake look-alike prostitute in Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential. I saw that film for the first time only a few months ago and I liked it, but not nearly as much as others liked it. Some parts were great, some parts felt silly to me. Basinger's role was one of the lesser parts to me. Her entrance is great, an extended tease of the mysterious woman under the hood, like a true homage to old-style Hollywood glamor. But the character disappoints. In spite of Basinger's attempts to give Lynn Bracken some depth, she doesn't really rise beyond the hooker with the heart of gold type."You're better than Veronica Lake," her lover Bud White tells her at one point, trying to assure of her own worth. She is a real woman, not fantasy, not Hollywood.
In retrospect though, it's Basinger and Bracken that feel fake to me and Veronica Lake, stealing aboard a train, casting spells over Fredric March, kissing Alan Ladd before he goes off to risk death, the same Veronica Lake that would die young and alone, that haunts me.