PHIL STERN’S HOLLYWOOD: PHOTOGRAPHS, 1940-1979
Hollywood, home to some of the most heavily veiled personalities outside of the Japanese imperial family isn’t always an easy place to be a photographer. In a place where performance is a way of life, it’s hard to catch people in the act of being themselves.
Stern, who spent four decades casing the joint for LIFE, brought to Hollywood the advantages of an ironist’s eye and a street photographer’s instincts. Though he can do the official portraitist’s job—in his picture of an airborne Sammy Davis Jr., he goes toe-to-toe with Martin Munkasci’s famous portrait of Astaire in a similar leap—Stern’s real strength lies in his offhand pictures. Some of them benefit from the stories he tells, like the one about an early example of product placement. While Stern perched overhead to shoot a roundtable script reading by the cast of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Joan Crawford, then married to the head of Pepsi-Cola, kept moving her bottle of soda to make sure the camera always got a clear view of the label.
Stern’s best work speaks for itself. The chance juxtaposition of a pensive Jack Benny with a zonked-looking Marilyn Monroe is surreal. Anita Ekberg holding up one hand to fend off a harsh light is a compact statement about the wary relationship between stars and their own fame. And the sight of a languorous John Wayne, who looks fetching in short shorts and a shoulder bag, is enough to make you rethink the whole persona of John Wayne—or at least the whole notion of resort wear. (Knopf, $40)