The It Girl
The producers of Factory Girl, which opens in cinemas this Friday, did one smart thing. They found a genuine twenty-first century It Girl (Sienna 'Drugs are f*** loads of fun' Miller) to play a 1960s variety (Edie 'Sex and speed. Wow' Sedgwick). But what is 'It', and who else has got 'It'?
Sienna herself is not much help ('I've never understood the definition,' she told a USA Today reporter recently.) But then neither was Clara Bow, the original It Girl back in 1927, who also claimed not to know what all the fuss was about.
The term was coined by British novelist Elinor Glyn (the Jackie Collins of her day), who wrote the novel, 'It', which became a smash (h)it starring Ms Bow. 'It' was a euphemism for sex, basically, but it's worth putting this in context: after the prudery of the Victorian era, the Jazz Age marked America's first, brief flirtation with sexual liberation - with as much stress on the second word as the first (American women only got the vote in 1920).
That was the thing about Clara Bow: with her cupid's bow lips, her slept-in red hair and her high 'flapper' skirts, she was a good time girl who really did seem to be having the time of her life. So much so that the public swallowed the most salacious gossip about her. And maybe you would scoop up the high life too, coming from where she did: born into destitution in Brooklyn, she grew up with an abusive father and a schizophrenic mother. One time, she woke up to find mom leaning over her bed with a knife in her hand. She suffered from insomnia for the rest of her life.
The movies were her escape route: she used to imitate her favourite stars in the bedroom mirror. After all, really wanting It is the first step to getting It, as any number of today's wannabes know (yes, we're talking about you: Paris and Lindsay; Nicole and Mischa).
At the same time, Glyn suggested 'It' should be natural and unselfconscious, which automatically discounts anyone named after a hotel and most of the BrIt-istas: TPT and that crew. Talent helps too. It doesn't take much to turn a few heads, but to keep them looking requires something extra. Bow had It in spades, and so did her chum Louise Brooks, but Brooks had the good fortune to work with the best in the biz, whereas Clara always wound up with the fuzzy end of the lollipop.
Bow is barely remembered today (her cartoon avatar, Betty Boop, is probably better known), but at the high point of her fame she received 45,000 fan letters a month. She was the first American sex symbol, on screen and off, famed and disdained for her promiscuity and party girl hijinks.
The studios were happy to capitalise on her affairs and repeatedly cast her in prurient roles, but when the press turned on her (after a disgruntled ex-employee went to the scandal rags) she was on her own. To the Hollywood establishment, wrote Budd Schulberg, Clara Bow 'was a low-life and a disgrace to the community'. She suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931 and retired two years later, at the grand old age of 28.
That's another common characteristic of the It Girl: burn-out. You can't be an 'It Woman', apparently. If you're lucky, you graduate to become a bona fide movie star - but that requires they take your talent seriously, a tall order if sex is your selling point. When she started out, Marilyn Monroe looked like the ultimate It Girl, but after marrying playwright and intellectual Arthur Miller she va-va-voomed right past 'It' to wind up a dead icon in her own right. MM's imitator, Jayne Mansfield on the other hand, will always be remembered as an It Girl: The Girl Can't Help It. (She died at 34.) The supremely talented Louise Brooks lived to be 78, but she too was finished by the time she was 30.
As for Warhols' protage Edie Sedgwick, she died at 28 after a drug overdose, but her 15 minutes of fame had already been spent.
Clara Bow lived to be 60. She finished her life in a sanitarium, ravaged by mental illness. Looking back on her glory days, she didn't sound regretful in the least:"We had individuality. We did as we pleased. I'd whiz down Sunset Boulevard in my open Kissel, with several chow dogs to match my hair. Today, they're more sensible and end up with better health. But we had more fun."
Maybe she had a hunch, you can't take It with you.
La Ronde (1950)
The Big Heat (1953)
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
What's New Pussycat (1965)
Ciao! Manhattan (1972)
Je t'aime moi non plus (1976)
Tracey Camilla Johns:
She's Gotta Have It (1986)
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