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VALLEY WEEKEND | SIGHTS

Photo Exhibition Reveals the Human Side of Celebrities

Sid Avery's intimate shots of Hollywood's inner circle hark back to days when cinema's workings were cloaked in mystery.

December 19, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even those who pretend to be indifferent to the glitz of show biz can't help but be a bit dazzled by Hollywood lore, especially when it peels back the artifice and reveals the humanity.

Who, for example, can remain blase in the presence of a photograph of a pants-less Paul Newman, pouring his morning coffee on a '50s movie set?

Photographer Sid Avery worked as a photojournalist with access to the inner circles of Hollywood until the early '60s, and his work appeared in Life, Saturday Evening Post and elsewhere. A sampling of intimate Hollywood scenes, showing at the Seven Sanctuaries Annexe gallery, spark visual and cultural interest.

Taken in the postwar period of the '50s and '60s, the photos predate the present-day filmmaking fetish. The '90s boast an obsessive awareness of moviemaking, from top to bottom, available to the general public in magazines, newspapers, entertainment shows and Internet forums.

When Avery captured these images, the cinematic process was still cloaked in a certain mystery. So seeing the shot of Alfred Hitchcock discussing a scene with Tony Perkins and Janet Leigh during the making of "Psycho" has considerably more intrigue than, say, the publicity stills and clips for the latest Tom Cruise vehicle.

Some of the most striking images depict Hollywood personalities out of character, at least from how we've come to perceive them. There is Jack Benny in a serious pose, dramatically lit and half-buried in shadow, without a trace of his trademark deadpan smirk.

Marlon Brando, on the other hand, is captured with a face-consuming grin, holding a piece of burnt toast. A more typical Brando image finds him with bongos cradled in his lap, looking pensive to a fault.

Although we know that toward the end of his life Humphrey Bogart enjoyed family life with Lauren Bacall and their children, it's still a bit disconcerting to see him with wee son Stephen, basking in domestic bliss while gazing at a model ship.

Kirk Douglas and family pose with an all-American family casualness, except for the fact that Dad and his sons have donned fake mustaches.

Because Hollywood preserves the youth of its actors by capturing their images on celluloid for later comparison, hindsight plays a role in our appreciation of Avery's work. Jayne Mansfield, that archetypal blond bombshell, is seen with a bushel of golden hair, her cleavage visible in a strapless dress as she meets her public, smiling big and signing autographs. She's the picture of vitality here, but it's hard to view Mansfield's countenance now without thinking of her unsavory demise in a car wreck.

Elizabeth Taylor is pictured, sensuous and distracted, sunning herself on the set of "Giant" in 1955. Needless to say, it's a radically different Taylor than the one who keeps popping up in tabloids.

Avery was an ardent craftsman and his works show both a portraitist's care and a photojournalist's eye for decisive moments. In one fascinating image, Nat King Cole is on stage at a nightclub, a tall, slightly tilted, glowing presence.

Sitting at the table against the stage is Jack Palance, caught with a shifty-eyed look that has served him well in villain roles over the years. But in another image, Palance is seen with his young daughter, a gentle lamb of a man.

There is Hollywood, the myth machine, and then there are the people who work in Hollywood, while maintaining--or trying to maintain--normal lives. One of the most memorable moments in the exhibition is the shot of the ever-fresh-faced Audrey Hepburn, bicycling around the grounds of a studio with a pooch in her basket. She looks like a country girl, innocently tooling around the empty streets of her village.

That's Hollywood for you, then and now--a precious, private village where the citizens either live in glass houses or barricade themselves behind fortresses. Avery's photographs gain charm with the passage of time, as we look back on the pre-counterculture era with longing. Innocence isn't what it used to be.

* "The Artistry of Sid Avery," through Jan. 11 at Seven Sanctuaries Annexe, 14106 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Gallery hours: noon-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; (818) 990-7049.

Art Going Public: In a completely different way, Hollywood and its archetypal baggage play a role in the show at the CSUN Art Dome. "Public Art, Community and the Environment" is a display of proposals by high school artists for mural projects around Los Angeles. Also on display is documentation of existing murals.

Many of the aspiring muralists have chosen that prominent landmark, the Hollywood sign, as a symbol not so much of pride as decay and depravity. The sign is variously viewed tilting into a chasm, caused by an earthquake or other ominous forces, and marring a once-natural landscape.

In that the theme concerns ecology and the environment in Southern California, many of the murals deal with the gradual erosion of the indigenous environment.

The first-place award was given to Delia Gonzalez from James Monroe High School, whose mural depicts a pollution-choked city skyline and images of constricting ropes and nets. At the opposite end of the long horizontal piece, youngsters are armed with liberating scissors, a symbol of hope.

One of the most simple, yet striking works here is by Helen Le. She depicts Malibu burning, reducing a community to houses that look like fire-enveloped icons, with helicopters hovering overhead in a futile attempt to tame nature's fury. Man at odds with nature, a subject particularly relevant to the Los Angeles experience, is the underlying subject here.

* "Public Art, Community and the Environment," through Jan. 18 at CSUN Art Gallery, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. Gallery hours: 12-4 p.m. Mondays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 12-4 p.m. Saturdays (closed Saturday to Jan. 5); (818) 677-2226.

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