New-York Time – August 2011
IN Hollywood, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to do remakes of it.
Stephanie Diani for The New York Times
The actress Rose McGowan keeps a reminder of one of her favorite Hollywood studios at her home in Beverly Hills, Calif.
These days, that’s pretty much everyone. The film industry is one in which collective amnesia is so profound that it’s safe to conclude that half the reason you are only as good as your last picture is that no one can remember further back.
“It breaks my heart that so many people in the film industry have no clue who paved the way for them,” the actress Rose McGowan said. “There’s almost a willful ignorance on their part.”
So she would hardly be surprised if a studio executive walked into her Beverly Hills, Calif., bungalow and, upon seeing the letters R, K and O hanging on her wall, wondered what the heck they stood for. Her own personalized spin on the TKO? After all, the actress is not known for pulling her punches, nor does she as the villainous Marique in next Friday’s release of “Conan the Barbarian.”
But no. It turns out that back in the day, there was a whole movie studio called RKO. Who knew?
Ms. McGowan, of course. A serious devotee of the Hollywood golden age of the 1930s and ’40s, and a not-so-serious collector of its memorabilia, she was going through a dealer’s warehouse when she happened upon the four-foot-high Art Deco initials, glossily lacquered the color of a wine-red lipstick. She stopped dead in her tracks.
“My heart was racing,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Holy hell, I’ve found the old RKO letters.’ I kind of freaked out. It’s always been one of my favorite studios.” She promptly bought the letters and installed them in the entryway of her former house, which she described, blithely quoting the famous opening monologue from the 1944 film noir “Double Indemnity,” as “one of those California Spanish houses people were nuts about 10 or 15 years ago.”
“That’s my favorite opening ever,” she added.
That film, loosely remade as “Body Heat” in 1981, was a Paramount picture. But Ms. McGowan noted that in the ’40s, RKO was famous for its film noir releases, many of them starring the laconic antihero Robert Mitchum. (A high point was “Out of the Past” in 1947, loosely remade in 1984 as “Against All Odds.”) She pointed out that in the ’30s, RKO also had a great run of screwball comedies — foremost among them, “Bringing Up Baby” in 1938.
Ms. McGowan is the rare actress who manages to land somewhere between femme fatale and madcap heiress. (She’s quick to quote Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”) If there is any actress she identifies with, it’s Barbara Stanwyck. “I love how she could play sexy and funny, and how she never stopped working,” she said. She also noted that she recently suffered an injury trying to pick grapefruit in her backyard in high heels.
And, most notably, one of the decade’s most memorable screen characters was created with her in mind: Cherry Darling in “Planet Terror” (2007), the game girl who replaces her amputated leg with a machine gun so she can kick some zombie tail.
“That was the closest to me, I think,” she said. “I got to use all these useless talents I never can otherwise.”
RKO was also the studio that made “King Kong,” “Citizen Kane” and those Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. As this list suggests, she said: “RKO was always a bit schizophrenic. They kind of just threw stuff at the wall to see what stuck.”
As someone who has tried a similar tack with her own career, Ms. McGowan feels a certain kinship with the often random-seeming output of RKO. She even has a fascination with the studio’s strange demise at the hands of Howard Hughes, who bought it in the late ’40s and ran it into the ground in just a few years. “The color of the letters seems very Howard Hughes,” she said, referring to his penchant for sultry actresses like Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth. “He was the ultimate eccentric. He had women stashed all over town.”
Today, stashed herself in a pink-painted bungalow in Beverly Hills, Ms. McGowan can almost live out the dream of an RKO contract player in the old studio system, where movies were churned out (some good, some bad), and no one ever looked back.
At least one thing has not changed since then: no one looks back now, either.