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Heroines: the gold standard

In Jerry Bruckheimer's crime shows, blonds are key members of the team.

September 14, 2003|Michael Joseph Gross | Special to The Times

"Blonds are the best victims," Alfred Hitchcock once famously observed. "They're like virgin snow which shows up the bloody footprints." Jerry Bruckheimer might beg to differ.

On Bruckheimer's prime-time shows, blonds are often the ones following the bloody footprints -- and nabbing the bad guys at the end. Poppy Montgomery of "Without a Trace," Emily Procter of "CSI: Miami," Kathryn Morris of "Cold Case" and Marg Helgenberger of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" have much in common. They add a splash of brightness to the characteristically dark look of Bruckheimer's shows and a touch of softness to the hard-boiled world of crime investigation. Ron Simon, curator of the Museum of Television & Radio in New York, notes that Bruckheimer's blonds are "playing off the film noir tradition. The blond temptress is still there. But this time, she's working for the team." Furthermore, he says, their strength and intelligence transforms the tradition of blond crime fighters on television, whose (ahem) highlights include Anne Francis' flamboyant Honey West and Farrah Fawcett's jiggly Jill on "Charlie's Angels."

Don't they know it.

"Women on these Bruckheimer shows are the thinking person's blonds," Morris says during a break from filming "Cold Case," where the walls of the police station set are painted the same pale blue as Morris' eyes. "They're just as sexy and girly as girls can be, but their personalities are like brunets stuck in a blond's body."

At the start of a recent interview at his Santa Monica office, Bruckheimer seems nervously dismissive when asked how blonds came to prominence in his prime-time dramas. In a low voice, muffled, since he's covering his mouth with his hand, he says, "It's coincidence. We look for the best actresses. These actresses have blond hair. It's not like we set out to hire blonds." A remark several minutes later, however, suggests that perhaps there is some aesthetic design to Bruckheimer's casting. "It's a collage. I take Polaroids of everybody that we're considering and put them together. John Ford, when he made westerns, always used to make sure that each of the actors playing good guys wore different-shaped hats. So when you silhouetted them, you could always tell which character was which. So when you take a cast and you put them all together, you want them all to have distinctive looks. When you have a blond female, and you do long shots, right away they're instantly recognizable" -- he snaps his fingers for emphasis.

The actresses themselves are decidedly more conscious of the sexual context of their own presence on screen and are perfectly comfortable talking about it. (Except perhaps for Helgenberger, who declined to be interviewed for this story.) They're otherwise unanimous in stating that their hair is a significant presence on set and an important element of their characters.

"[Bruckheimer] is definitely someone who considers sex appeal when making a TV show," Procter says. "In someone else's version of 'CSI: Miami,' Calleigh's hair might not be down and there might not be an issue about it. But here there is an issue to the point where last year [co-star] Adam Rodriguez said, 'There's a blank space at No. 2 on the call sheet' [a breakdown of all the characters and other elements involved in filming a scene]. 'Who is No. 2?' And I said, 'It's my hair.' "

While filming the pilot, Procter said, she improvised a hair flip in one scene, which stopped the production for a 10-minute scolding. "It was like, 'We just can't have that. It's not professional. Crime scene investigators wouldn't do that.' And I was like, 'Sorry, I was just trying to get it out of the way.' And then of course it ended up in the teaser for the pilot."

Montgomery, who played the lead in "Blonde," a TV movie about the life of Marilyn Monroe, was subsequently hired for "Without a Trace" without an audition. She imagines that blondness has helped her character, Samantha, get ahead in the FBI. "I think she uses it, because it's a male-oriented business. She uses it when she needs to, and she puts it away when she wants to be taken seriously."

And Morris says, "I had a discussion about my character's blondness and her sexiness with Bruckheimer and ['Cold Case' creator] Meredith Stiehm. In the early talks about it, I wanted to know how that was going to be addressed. I can't stand it when you see a girl pouring out of her outfit and it's not acknowledged. That's a big lie. I think it's more interesting if Lilly Rush leans over and [her co-worker] sees my thong and says 'Nice,' and I say, 'It's all for you, baby.' It's like, 'Go ahead. Take a look. You've seen it before.' My main thing was that she not apologize for her sexuality, not apologize for her femininity."

The act of being blond

All three actresses say that it's impossible to separate the effect of blondness on their personal and professional lives, and each deals with her blondness in a very different way.

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