IF YOU remember Jean Harlow, you are old — the 75th anniversary of her death is on Jun 7. Harlow was dubbed the ‘original blonde bombshell,’ a phrase that has attached to a host of female actresses since, known as much for their appearance as for their acting skills.
Marilyn Monroe was Harlow’s most famous successor, but there were many lesser-knowns who trailed in her platinum wake.
Actors like Jayne Mansfield, Mae West, Mamie Van Doren, Veronica Lake, Carole Lombard, Lana Turner and Grace Kelly were all old-school Hollywood bombshells, to varying degrees — Grace Kelly was cool, elegant and detached, compared with Mansfield’s pneumatically immediate appeal.
Diana Dors was Britain’s bargain-basement blonde bombshell, and Brigitte Bardot was to redefine the phrase in the 1950s, adding sexuality to the glamour.
There were many others who followed in Harlow’s footsteps but didn’t make it into the Hollywood legend category: Sheree North, Barbara Nichols, Cleo Moore, Beverley Michaels, Marie McDonald, Barbara Lang, Martha Hyer. Who? Exactly. All famous in their time, but didn’t last — bombshell disposables, if you like.
Harlow started the blonde thing. In the ten years between her movie debut, at 16, and her death in 1937 from kidney failure, aged 26, she turned the world blonde. Female film fans rushed out in their tens of thousands to buy peroxide, often with disastrous results; hair was frequently over-bleached and scalps burned, because, back then, you could literally make bombs as well as bombshells out of hair dye — it was that potent.
Prior to Harlow, directors had cast dark-haired actresses like Lulu Brooks, Lilian Gish and Tallulah Bankhead as vamps and vixens; she was the original platinum blonde, to whom the word ‘luminosity’ was first applied. Pale hair, pale skin, pale-coloured gowns, and those strange Pierrot-doll eyebrows and cupid lips; Harlow created a look that still filters through today in actors like Scarlett Johansson, perhaps the only current Hollywood star who is befitting of the traditional title ‘bombshell’. She oozes it.
The concept of bombshell doesn’t apply to contemporary culture, unless it is a look studiously constructed for a period piece — like the character Joan from Mad Men. Yet, this is strictly for that part — playing alongside Ryan Gosling in Drive, Christina Hendricks turns up in jeans. Despite the Jayne Mansfield physique, Hendricks is not an off-camera bombshell in the manner of Harlow.
Nobody is, apart from Dita Von Teese, the self-created ‘1940s’ goddess who, underneath the Snow White colouring of black hair, white skin and red lips, is a blonde with freckles. Not that Dita is a silver-screen legend; she makes her living taking her clothes off in a giant martini glass, but her retro bombshell look is not something she shrugs off when she isn’t working. She does not, she says, change into trackie bottoms and slouch socks when off duty; she maintains the glamour at all times. She says that she has never worn jeans in her life.
That’s the thing with contemporary Hollywood. They wear jeans. And Crocs, and Birkenstocks, and baggy t-shirts, and beanies, and no make-up.
In Harlow’s era, the 1930s golden age of Hollywood, the glamour was 24/7; you were never papped on the doorstep looking like something the cat threw up, because both expectations of, and access to, the stars, were different then. Actors were treated deferentially, like royalty; in return, they behaved like royalty, in public anyway. They maintained the illusion of stardom at all times.
Today, things have become naturalistic. Even ‘goddesses’ like Angelina Jolie are not bombshells. Jolie may be the ‘most beautiful white woman’, but being pictured in airports looking scrawny with half a dozen kids in tow is distinctly non-bombshell.
Demi Moore, astonishingly good-looking and with equally astonishing longevity in an industry that prizes youth above talent, could never be described as a bombshell; bombshells didn’t go surfing, and they certainly didn’t go to rehab every time they had an emotional crisis. They took cocaine and drank gin and carried on.
This is why Elizabeth Taylor was the last old-school bombshell. Although definitely not blonde, she embodied the bombshell perfectly. She was all about diamonds, small dogs, hot men, and lounging, perfectly made-up in a peignoir, even when in bed ill. She didn’t look like the kind of star who had any idea what a spirulina smoothie was, but she certainly knew how to drink and take pills; her personal life was a series of car crashes, her acting skills superlative, her glamour long-lived and undiminished.
You couldn’t say that about Jennifer Aniston or Gwyneth Paltrow. While both are gorgeously glossy, like expensively maintained race horses, they ooze health, vigour and vitality; this is entirely anti-bombshell. Omega oils, tofu and seaweed are the last thing a bombshell would seek out; it was all about smoking, late nights and unwanted pregnancies, rather than yoga, personal trainers and pilates. This is no longer fashionable. Given our obsession with health and youth, there is no place among our icons for debauchery, especially if you are female. It is simply not done anymore to have martinis for breakfast or heroin for lunch; if you do, you are marched off to rehab by your publicists and agents before you can say Lindsay Lohan.
Lohan had potential to be a bombshell, with her louche, blonde decadence, but she didn’t quite pull it off. Too trashy, too Paris Hilton, too Britney. Too much bad surgery, too much Botox. It should be remembered that Jean Harlow was not even particularly gorgeous in the Angelina sense — to the modern eye, Harlow almost looks like a man in drag — but 75 years ago the clouds of platinum hair and stylised make-up were a new look. With her addiction to pills and booze, Lohan had the Elizabeth Taylor thing going on, but Taylor (whom Lohan is about to play in a forthcoming film) never screwed up with anything as tacky as an ankle monitor or multiple jail sentences.
Perhaps, then, we must look further afield for modern-day bombshells. Gwen Stefani had bombshell tendencies, but was too pop. Supermodels could never fit the category as they are all too thin and too blank, with the possible exception of Naomi Campbell, who is all about diamonds, tantrums and glamour — but is the essential concept of bombshell just a teeny bit racist, applying only to blonde caucasians?
If one had to nominate a modern-day bombshell — that is, a super-glam image which has evolved from the static passivity of the Hollywood golden age, then Lady Gaga would be a front runner. More icon than eye candy, she is bombshell as performance art. While her predecessor, Madonna, falls into the race horse category — nobody that muscled could ever be a bombshell, no matter how fabulous — Gaga has taken the old-fashioned idea of glamour, mutated it, and hurled it back to us as something so other-wordly we are still not sure how to categorise her. If that’s not a definition of bombshell, then I don’t know what is.
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