Thursday, 18 July 2013


This month's Iconic Photographic by British photographer, Terry O'Neill,  is widely regarded as one of the best Oscar pictures taken and given that its still spoken of thirty-seven years after being taken, there must be something in that.  Stephen McKenna sets the scene:


We are at the poolside of the famous Beverly Hills Hotel,  very early in the morning, the sun hardly up, following the 1977 Academy Awards ceremony; and the subject, in glamorous silk dressing gown and high heels, is that year's choice for Best Actress 'Oscar', Faye Dunaway.


Around her is an untidy scene of discarded newspapers, a breakfast tray with a very un-Hollywood pot of tea, a plastic cigarette lighter and, almost incidentally, an Oscar statuette.  Meanwhile, that year's newly crowned 'Queen of Hollywood' lounges, distractedly, in an art deco style pool chair.  Matched with the lacquered pedestal table there is a hint of the glory days of tinseltown in the 20s and 30s.


The photographer is the briton, Terry O'Neill, and he's known Dunaway exactly one week but during that time he has got to know her well enough for her to give him access to this most intimate moment.


In some ways it is a very contrived picture with hints of a fair degree of choreography,  as in the careful scatter of the newspapers and the table and subject placed symmetrically to the poolside background, but actually the defining characteristic of this image which takes it beyond the conventional is its air of ambivalence.  Winning an Oscar in 'La La Land' has to be the very top of the tree and having missed out on the prized door-stop in 1967 for 'Bonnie & Clyde' and  1974 for 'Chinatown' (losing respectively to Katherine Hepburn and Ellen Burstyn), finally, she now has the coveted trophy.  But where is the morning champagne? Where is the gay laugh and throwback of that lush hair?


There's a distinct atmosphere of ennui.  Detachment.  Even deflation, perhaps.  Indeed, subsequently Dunaway's career would be all but derailed by the 1981 film based on the life of Joan Crawford, 'Mommie Dearest', following a near universal panning by the critics.


Talking about the picture many years later, O'Neill recalls the shutter-click moment in less sinister tones:  "I wanted to capture the look of dazed confusion.  To capture that state of utter shock that Oscar winners enter, where they go to bed thrilled, then overnight, it dawns on them that they've changed, that they've just become a star. And not just a star, a millionaire ... She isn't sure quite who she is any more. I waited for her to look away from the camera, and I got the shot.  It's still the best Oscar picture ever taken. And modern photographers should take that as a challenge."


Not only did O'Neill get the picture, he also got the girl.  He and Dunaway married briefly in 1984.


Terry O'Neill is one of Britain's most famous photographers having photographed many of the greatest figures of the last century including Laurence Olivier, Judy Garland, Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor, the Beatles, Elton John, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss and the Royal Family.  He also gives his name to the annual international photography prize, 'The Terry O'Neill Award'.

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