PAULETTE GODDARD: THE STAR WHO DIDN’T GIVE A DAMN
Posted ~ June 3rd, 2015
Warm. Sophisticated. Self-aware. Waif-like. Sunny. Physical. Catty. Gold-digging. Vulnerable. Generous. Guarded. Down to earth. Practical. Lighthearted. Tough. Tomboyish. Cynical. Sparkling. Amoral. Hopeful.
Equally at home barefoot
or swathed in ermine (or both!), Paulette God-dard’s combination of gameness and cultivated beauty led her to Holly-wood but once there she didn’t settle, in any way. She said, “I lived in Hollywood long enough to learn to play tennis and become a star, but I never felt it was my home. I was never looking for a home, as a matter of fact.”
Gutsy, forthright, free-spirited and a very hard worker, she never liked playing the “good girl” game for publicity purposes and probably lost roles because of it. She was termed “dynamite” in an unflattering way by a studio publicist. The main part of her film career lasted only about eleven years…from 1936 to 1947; though she worked continually from the 1920’s through the 1970’s. But she had a deeply practical streak that seems to be perfectly in tune with Depression-era and WWII audiences. Women could relate to her practicality and pluck, and men adored her.
I think maybe her brand of wit was a little too sharp to keep her in leading lady roles her whole life long and she had an itch to cause a stir. Did she just get bored with the movie industry and move on? It’s possible. It’s also rumored that a quarrel with Cecil B. DeMille in the late forties blackballed her career. Whatever the truth is, the fleeting intangible that makes us watch Paulette also makes her problematic as an actress. When she’s on she’s breathtaking, but her spontaneity can’t always be captured, or manufactured. Under her bravado, she had a self-conscious streak, brought forward by intense coaching from Charlie Chaplin before “Modern Times.”
She also had a certain foxiness, a feline femininity that was…cunning. Resourcefulness is a key ele-ment in all her characters. Nowadays, her business acumen and ingenuity would be applauded and put to good use. But I get the impression that her directness was not appreciated at the time, and especially not in Hollywood. Her real career was in accumulating and giving away wealth; her huge contributions to NYU make her most important role that of philanthropist. ( See her jewelry collection ). At any rate, she never seems to have invested as much in her acting career as in her diamonds. And that was a very good thing for Paulette Goddard. But it leaves us film-goers wanting more.
Paulette didn’t trust her own fame. I think she was like her characters, too deeply street-wise to give Hollywood her all. Perhaps the sting of losing the role of Scarlett O’Hara in the final stages of casting “Gone With the Wind” broke her heart. She never dwelt on the loss except to say she cried. A lot. Then, she moved on without much complaint, like the heroines she played.
Goddard always seemed to me to be having more fun OFF-camera. Many times, her screen characters couldn’t match what I perceive as the real Paulette…it’s a disap-pointment when her material isn’t as natural as she is. But in her best films – “The Women”, “Hold Back the Dawn”, “The Crystal Ball”, her two Chaplin films, “An Ideal Husband”, “So Proudly We Hail” and “Reap the Wild Wind” ( sorry, I know I’ve forgotten some ), she is like lightning in a jar. You can’t stop watching her. She’s a pistol, attracts your attention without even trying.
It is the intersection of the sexy siren and the smart-ass that draws me to Goddard. She never seems man-crazy, empty-headed or simply a clothes-horse. Watching her films makes me long to sit with her and have a good talk, though I’d be surprised if she ever sat still for long. I think she might have described herself as a “flaunter of convention” or “a man’s woman” rather than as a femme fatale. William Saroyan said she was “challenging, mischievous, coquettish, wicked and abso-lutely innocent.” She’s a contradiction – a woman who appreciated great art and hung out with intellectuals but who seemed equally at home watching horse races or sitting on the floor playing with kids. She was genuine but sly; in the end, open and yet a total mystery. No wonder men responded to her! The smart, savvy businesswoman lived inside the same body as the woman who loved flirty, girlish fun. She didn’t hide her smarts, but did conceal her vulnerability. She was never shy about stating who she really was. Maybe this clear-eyed honesty made her a bit threatening in Hollywood? I don’t know, but she’s seldom listed anymore with the other famous actresses of her time and that’s a shame.
What I love most about Paulette Goddard is her warmth. It shines off the screen. Oh, it’s sometimes tinged with cynicism or laced with regret, but the school of hard knocks cannot flatten her. That inner warmth makes you want to be on her side. Her instinct to make light of the worst situations is refreshing to me in this era of continual and very open complaining. We do not cultivate charm anymore and she’s practically the epitome of the word.
Portrait by Diego Rivera
I guess what I’m saying is she’s one of a kind… unapologetic, clever and daring. We won’t see anyone that spontaneous in Hollywood again. She had absolutely no pretence or illusions. She lived for the moment. There’s something soooo damn comfortable about her – she’s like a pal, the kind with whom you get into trouble and then laugh about it later. It’s rare to see someone so relaxed on screen. I think it’s her major asset. She was so sure of who she was that she was able to make fun of herself and Hollywood, which may not have been healthy for her career. But she had other things to do.
Paulette’s cagey self-knowledge sometimes reveals a deeper understanding of human nature than is expected. Like most of my favorite light actresses, she makes comedy look easy, but I wait for the rare moments when she lets her hair down. Always cast for her unbridled physicality, I prefer Paulette’s quiet moments, revealing her softer side as if she were almost ashamed of it. In “The Women”, full of great and famous actresses, I watch PAULETTE because she is the most down to earth, the most real. Pauline Kael, the notoriously picky film critic, said of her, “She’s a standout. She’s FUN.” Really now, could you ask for anything more from a movie star?
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