I know I should reserve my outrage for more important matters, but I just saw the new Gap commercial featuring Audrey Hepburn and my mouth is frozen in a silent scream. As part of their new “Keep it Simple” campaign, the Gap uses footage of the late actress from the Stanley Donen film “Funny Face.” We see Hepburn in a Parisian café saying, “I rather feel like expressing myself now. And I could certainly use the release.” She then starts dancing wildly and after a few seconds jumps out of the film onto a white Gap-like background and continues her frenetic dance to the tune of the AC/DC song “Back in Black.” According to Trey Laird, creative director of the Gap, “We wanted to do something really special to re-launch our skinny black pants and thought who better to showcase them than actress Audrey Hepburn—an iconic woman famous for dressing with sophistication and classic style.” What did he say? I couldn’t hear that last part because it was drowned out by the sound of Audrey Hepburn spinning in her grave.
I have to assume that the Gap secured the rights to Ms. Hepburn’s glorious image and I don't want to pass judgment on her family members who I assume held those rights. But even though the commercial is a technical marvel and fascinating to watch (you can find it on YouTube), it begs the question, “Just because something is possible to do, does that mean we should do it?” It’s not the first time a major movie star has posthumously starred in a TV commercial. In an even more unsettling ad campaign, Hepburn’s “Funny Face” co-star Fred Astaire appeared in a 1996 Dirt Devil commercial dancing expertly with a vacuum cleaner. Astaire’s young widow was roundly criticized at the time for selling out her husband’s reputation for a buck. Astaire’s daughter, Ava McKenzie, unleashed her fury in a letter to the manufacturer. “Your paltry, unconscionable commercials are the antithesis of everything my lovely, gentle father represented, ” she wrote, adding that she was “saddened that after his wonderful career, he was sold to the devil.”
It all comes down to money. Most family members who control the rights to their loved ones’ images say that they would only entertain offers from commercial ventures that the stars would have supported when they were alive. I’m fairly certain that Fred Astaire would not have considered hawking Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners as the perfect capper for his illustrious career, and I’m highly suspect that Audrey Hepburn would have thrown her support to the Gap’s skinny pants campaign, despite the name change of the 10-year-old product to “The Audrey Hepburn™ Pant.” Oh well, at least the Gap is “making a generous contribution to the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund in celebration of the launch of the Keep It Simple ad campaign.” But is there really anything to celebrate?
Digital technology is so advanced today that almost anything is possible. I just heard that they are going back into the original 1960s “Star Trek” episodes to update the special effects for a new DVD release. Say it ain't so! They could at least use the technology to correct actual casting errors. I would fully support the digital replacement of bored-out-of-his-mind Leslie Howard in “Gone With the Wind” or the computer annihalation of Richie Petrie from the otherwise perfect “Dick Van Dyke Show” episodes. I fear where all this is going. Are we really that far away from being able to create new starring roles for the departed movie icons of yesteryear? Coming soon: “Top Gun III” starring Tom Cruise and Rita Hayworth. Stay tuned for “Spiderman 6” in which our arachnid hero rescues Lana Lovely (Marilyn Monroe) from the evil clutches of the maniacal Sandman played by Charles Laughton. Or maybe they'll do another remake of “The Parent Trap” starring a pre-pubescent Judy Garland as twin girls who desperately try to reunite their warring parents, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.
Do I sound like some old fogey who is resisting the inevitable changes that modern technology brings to each generation? Am I like the people who don’t trust those newfangled ATMs or still can’t figure out how to use their almost-obsolete Fax machines? In truth, there’s a lot about the new technology that I admire. Kendall and I saw the film “Hollywoodland” over the weekend which is a somewhat fictional tale about the real-life 1959 suicide (or was it?) of actor George Reeves (TV’s “Superman”). I’m not a huge Ben Affleck fan but I have to say he did a great job as Reeves and that the film perfectly evoked the feel of 1950s Hollywood. I was especially impressed by Diane Lane’s depiction of Reeves’ married sugar mama, Toni Mannix, wife of MGM VP and hitman, Eddie Mannix. Lane plays the role with a combination of toughness and vulnerability that is very touching. Even though the actress is only 41 (to Ben Affleck’s 34) and stunningly beautiful, she is quite believable in the role of Much Older Woman in Reeves’ life. Let’s face it, 41 is about 73 in movie star years, at least for women. In the film, much is made of Reeves’ attempt to jump-start his career following his unexpected success as the Man of Steel. In one sequence, we see Ben Affleck as George Reeves interacting with Burt Lancaster in scenes from the film “From Here to Eternity.” It is seamless—you’d swear it was actual footage from the 1953 film.
One of the earliest attempts to combine old and new film footage was Woody Allen’s 1983 film “Zelig,” a remarkable achievement for the day. In that faux documentary, we see Allen’s Leonard Zelig interacting with real-life historical figures such as Babe Ruth, Woodrow Wilson, Al Capone, Fannie Brice, William Randolph Hearst, and many others. This was done by inserting shots of Allen into old newsreels and it was so complicated at the time that the film took many years to complete (Allen made two other films in the interim). Today such effects could probably be done on computers in a matter of months or even weeks. 11 years later director Robert Zemeckis had Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump performing in scenes with actual 1960s icons such as JFK, George Wallace, John Lennon, and LBJ.
I have no problem with these movies. In fact, I enjoy them immensely as long as the real-life characters are presented in the spirit of historical accuracy. I’m also a huge fan of historical fiction, from E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime” to Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City” and a book I just finished reading called “The Kitchen Boy” by Robert Alexander that tells the story of a servant in the Siberian house where Czar Nicholas II and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks. One of my favorite job assignments ever was a series of stories for McDougal-Littell in which I had to create fictional characters against the backdrop of important historical events. I wrote about a woman in 1955 who lived in the same apartment building as Rosa Parks and was on the bus when Parks refused to move to the back, I had a family in Chicago grappling with its fears during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and I guessed how a student of John Scopes might have reacted when she saw her teacher examined by William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow during the infamous 1925 Scopes Trial.
But inserting dead celebrities into crass commercial ads? Don’t you think that we have to draw the line somewhere?
And now, screen legend Greta Garbo explains why she’s going “muy loca” for Taco Bell’s new triple-decker burrito…