Saturday, December 5, 2009
Our last Mystery Guest turned out to be no mystery at all - everyone knew that it was Veronica Lake, minus her famous peekaboo hairstyle. That peekaboo-do was a gimmick, but a mightily successful gimmick: for a brief time, it made Lake one of the most popular actresses in American; and even after Lake's fame had faded, her iconic look remained indelible, copied by the likes of Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential (1997) and animated vixen Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).
Lake self-deprecatingly described her persona as that of a "sex zombie," rather than sex symbol; and while it's true that in many of her films, she seemed to scarcely raise an eyebrow, let alone crack a smile, her cool demeanor and super-sleek looks made the overall effect stunning. But a gimmick, no matter how effective, can only carry one so far without some substance to back it up; and while we don't necessarily agree with Lake's own very dim view of her acting abilities, it's true that she lacked the range and versatility to survive once the novelty of her hair had worn off.
Or shorn off, as the case may be. Once one of Paramount's top-earning stars, Lake finished out the last three years of her contract in sub-par fluff with titles like Bring on the Girls, Hold That Blonde (both 1945), Miss Susie Slagle's (1946), and The Sainted Sisters (1948). Perhaps Paramount was punishing Lake for her increasingly difficult on-set behavior; her one top-flight picture during this period was the Raymond Chandler noir, The Blue Dahlia (1946). It was the peekaboo blonde's last effective showing, but once again, she endeared herself to few on the crew, with Chandler himself dubbing her "Moronica Lake." The combination of her rebellious nature, mediocre films, and the eventual loss of her trademark hairstyle rang the death knell on her career: after Paramount dropped her contract in 1948, she appeared in just two more films before being branded unhirable. Her fall was fast and furious: by the early 1950's, Lake was a raging alcoholic, living hand to mouth in a series of cheap hotels, with a string of arrests for public drunkeness and disorderly conduct.
Somewhat remarkably, rather than fading out quietly, Lake somehow managed one last burst of energy, and between 1966-67, made two self-produced films, the impossible-to-find Footsteps in the Snow, and the infamous Flesh Feast, which wasn't released until 1970. Although it's a dreadful, tacky, unappealing mess, the latter is fascinating for the flashes of charisma and glamour that still, somehow, Lake manages to radiate even as the script calls for her to put flesh-eating maggots on the regenerated corpse of Adolf Hitler. She's clearly worn, and years of heavy drinking and rough living had hardened her once ethereal features; but her bone structure is still amazing, and Lake occasionally displays some of the aloof hauteur she was noted for in her 1940's heyday. (In the film's climactic scene, she gives what actually may be her most spirited, frenzied line readngs, ever; Joan Crawford in Berserk! seems somnambulistic by comparison.) The most disturbing, telltale sign of Lake's downfall, though, is when she smiles: her teeth are rotted and separated.
Flesh Feast's belated release coincided with the publication of Lake's candid memoirs, Veronica; it would be nice to think that this final flurry of interest turned her personal fortunes around, but it wasn't meant to be. When she died in 1973, at the young age of 51, Lake was still drinking heavily, nearly destitute, and estranged from her three grown children and four ex-husbands. Only 30 mourners attended her funeral, and only one of her children. Veronica Lake's time in the spotlight was brief, but glorious, and those famous locks are part of popular culture forever. Case in point: the first guess came from a newcomer to these parts, Ellen Surrey. Your prize, Ellen, is a free haircut: you can choose between Veronica Lake's peekabo, or our style.