Leslie and the Ladies (1939)
Leslie and the Ladies
by Ben Maddox
The elegant and amiable Mr. Howard speaks with startling frankness and real understanding. Subject: remodelling women!
Discontented women are usually responsible for their own defeats! Only one ungratified woman in a thousand tries to change herself in the right way.” It was Leslie Howard talking. Leslie, the sophisticate, had achieved perfect relaxation in a too rigid chair by simply lounging in it. He took slow, satisfying puffs at the English briar that is as much a part of him as his comfortable Mexican sandals are. He has seen how blunderingly some women have gone about attempting to remodel themselves, and he marvels at their persistent blindness.
“Of course nine out of ten women are miserable!” he went on. “They want to be exactly what they aren’t. But they don’t know how to go about it! The woman who denies that she wants, above all else, to be well-loved is plunging headlong into the worst of complexes. She may persuade herself temporarily that she is above romance being the most important thing in her life, but some day she’ll wake up to a pretty fine mess of regrets. She’ll never forgive herself for deliberately trying to live without the greatest of pleasures–love.”
The brilliant morning sun poured onto his blond hair. He shifted to get it on his face. Then he continued, firmly: “The woman who isn’t concerned chiefly with how to rate a better love-life isn’t interested in restyling herself, however, so let’s count her out. Most women today, fortunately, do suspect that no career of any kind will compensate for the lack of an above-par husband. No actress is making more commendable strides now than Bette Davis, and she will tell you herself that her career has also brought her a loneliness that she dreads.
“I am not unduly conceited about my own sex,” he smiled. “I realize that half of our romances slither off into dullness, if not into out-and-out disruption, because the gentleman in the case is no gentleman. The man too frequently does not do justice to the lady in the case. You know,” said Leslie, his blue eyes turning earnest, “a woman, to be at her best, must be guided by an understanding man, by a man who is experienced and wise and completely aware of her powers. He will never treat her as an inferior. Many men have little consideration for the women they marry. They don’t recognize that they must adapt themselves to feminine feelings.
“No woman, I don’t care who she is, really expresses herself until she has known love. Not until then can she live intensely. She only puts up a big bluff about being self-reliant until her desire for companionship is fully shared arid understood. Furthermore, a woman is stupid if she resigns herself to a disappointing life. Unselfishness is a dangerous virtue. Women who make themselves martyrs to men are rarely magnetic, as they could be. A man thrills to spirit in a woman, never to docile dumbness. Often wholesale devotion is plain cowardice, or laziness. A woman isn’t a true woman unless she has some conceit about her charms. Sometimes, regardless of how much a woman loves a man, and even though she does everything she can to please him, the man is not worth her efforts. When she learns that all her exertions have been futile, she finds a sudden determination to put an end to all her one-sided grief. I don’t blame her; I admire her. She can begin again, so why shouldn’t she ?
“I’m recalling actual case histories,” Leslie admitted. “I’ve been impressed with the cleverness of some women, and the bungling of others. The happiest women I’ve encountered have been the discerning ones who’ve artfully built their lives around the man they wanted. They bravely stepped out, and into the spot they felt suited them. They didn’t think too much. They listened to what their heart said. I don’t wonder so many women become mixed up when they resolve to remodel themselves; there’s such a barrage of advice fired forth that any doubtful person couldn’t help but be confused. But when a woman starts to set herself right she makes a grave mistake if she supposes she can reason herself into more pleasant circumstances. That ‘use-your-head’ theory is a fallacy. None of us is ever ruled by our brain, not really. Our emotions govern us. All we need do is let our heart decide which emotion is best. It’s not complicated, you see?
“The happiest women I’ve know have been amusing women , because a man longs to be entertained. Faithfulness and kindness are primary qualities for a woman to possess when she is in love, but a woman can’t sit back and expect to be fascinating because those two characteristics are obviously hers. It’s most commendable to be able to run a house, and raise a family. But a man wants more. He wants his life decorated. So a smart woman is proficient in the art of gaiety. She conscientiously sparkles. She is as easy to look at as she can be, and she is warm and sympathetic and merry. She doesn’t take things too seriously. I don’t say this attitude toward men is natural. It’s acquired. But a woman has her choice.
“From my observations, I say quite definitely that absolutely any woman can make herself over so that she is charming. Not even the most enchanting siren was born enchanting; she became so; step by step. People surround the process with mystery because they don’t want to go to the trouble involved.
“A woman’s charm, which is her most potent weapon, is the result of her surroundings, her training, and her way of having fun. A woman doesn’t have to be beautiful, though it helps. A girl is silly if she plasters on a lot of make-up and fancies that solves the whole problem; it doesn’t. Baby faces, pretty faces, and exotic faces are common in Hollywood, and the standardized studio girl couldn’t make the grade in real competition because she has banked on looking like a star who was an original. The ‘typical’ Hollywood girl falls into the same error as many other hard-working girls do; she expects a surface similarity to prove appeal is all she needs. No wonder she grows discouraged. She hasn’t enough individuality to stand out!
“Envy is a confession of inferiority. The fascinating women of this world don’t imitate; they create. They try to be different from any other woman who ever existed. They take advantage of grooming and polishing, certainly, but they bend the modes to spotlight their originality. Wendy Hiller, for example, had none of the attributes of a movie star. If I’d brought her here to Hollywood personally, and had taken her right into producers’ offices, and had recommended her as a fine bet for the screen, I would have been laughed out. They’d have said, ‘She may be a good stage actress, but she’s much too tall, she isn’t good-looking enough, she has no glamor, her features aren’t right and you can’t change features. She’s a bust !’
“But Wendy Hiller isn’t a bust. She demonstrated that she has plenty of screen appeal. She isn’t a beauty, but she has charm. She is a woman of enormous integrity. When she made her picture début in ‘Pygmalion’ we adapted ourselves to her individuality. She had been selected for the film by Shaw, because she’d been a hit when his play had been revived in the theatre. He hadn’t given a thought to film technique, so she didn’t, either. I finally persuaded her to go into the projection room with me and examine. her close-ups. She was wholly sincere about wanting to be a good actress, but she hadn’t realized what her rushes could teach her. After she saw how she looked she was more co-operative, we were able to photograph her more flatteringly. Every woman who is discontented with herself can profit equally as much by studying herself in a mirror. Perhaps she has mannerisms and gestures which detract, and of which she has been ignorant.
“I think Wendy Hiller can do great things on the screen if she is carefully cast, if her career is hand-tailored. If she is unwise enough to come to Hollywood on a standard contract, I’ve my doubts about her fate. They wouldn’t know how to handle her here; at least, only a Selznick or a Goldwyn would be sympathetic and painstaking enough. She is a demonstration of what I said about a woman needing understanding direction. It’s also a fact that a woman’s potentialities aren’t noticed by every man. My own chapter with Katharine Hepburn points this. She was cast in a Broadway play of mine. Today she is Broadway success, but that was back before she got into pictures, when she was beginning. The author had dug her up in a Massachusetts stock company. When watched her attempting to portray my warm, feminine mistress I was stricken dumb. She was a funny looking girl, wearing a weird coat, and she not only had no regard for her appearance, but she was appallingly inept at acting that role. When I saw her, later, on the screen I was even more astounded. Her scrappy, gingery hair had become a compelling crowning glory as if were. The character in her face, he individuality, was now quite apparent. She was literally transformed. Yet she was unlike anyone else in Hollywood; she was her own self, an original, polished up. She was wise to follow her heart and not imitate. She had the courage to climb. A woman of significance can’t be soft at the core. On the surface, yes. But she must have nerve. If she lets her natural self-respect filter away she’s a weaklìng. She’s foolishly suppressed her native impulses. She’s narrowed her interests, a splendid system for becoming a first-class bore.
“The one thing a woman can emulate a feminine movie star in, besides grooming, is voice technique. I don’t mean to go about speaking like any one particular actress; that’s monotonous copying once more. I mean that all our better actresses rely on the tone of their voice and their diction for much of their charm. They employ a low pitch. They cultivate colorfulness of range. Many a woman only has to open her mouth to disillusion a man. Many a woman could open her mouth and intrigue a man. Why allot energy to improving the face and figure and ignore the sex-appeal a voice gives or spoils ?
“This is something any woman can work on in her own home. She can pay attention to fine samples of speech, breathe rhythmically, practice talking before her mirror. She can eliminate any suggestion of a whine, of mediocrity if she’ll take the bother. It’s worthwhile. A man responds to a pleasing vibration, believe me! And don’t for one minute presume one is born with one’s voice-for-a-life-time. Ann Harding, for instance, created that lovely voice of hers. Laboriously, methodically. She did not talk like Wendy Hiller in the first reels of ‘Pygmalion,’ ” he grinned, “but she makes no bones about having had just a plain, ordinary voice until she set out to do something about it.
“Women who only copy, when they recognize they lack charm, and women who are suspicious or cynical go into the also-ran classification with the clinging-vines. I contend jealousy is death on charm. A woman is better off being made a fool of than succumbing to any ugly misgivings. Adaptability and tolerance are neater qualities! And while a woman is making herself over so that she is gay, making herself into a person with enough resources so she doesn’t have to be in on a man’s every intimate thought, she should be realistic about that little item of safety. Today no woman can be certain of safety, so she ought to enjoy each day as best she can. She can face whatever tomorrow brings as well as anyone else.
“Listening to your heart instead of head doesn’t imply,” warned Leslie, who was standing now, “that a woman is going to stagnate. A man wants a woman to have views, when he asks for them ! Vivien Leigh confines her ruthlessness to her Scarlett O’Hara. She herself is on her toes on world affairs, on the new books, on music. It was fun to work with her. She’s entertaining.”
Then Leslie Howard stretched and turned leisurely, very leisurely away from the chair. And quietly left the room.
(Screenland, November 1939)