In Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Faye Dunaway is a fashion photographer with a penchant for sensationalism and stylised violence in her imagery. But between the luridness of the fashion and the precision of her photography, there is something indistinct, unknown and unexpected that takes her to the edge. Director Irvin Kershner plunges viewers into the 1970s fashion scene, with renowned models of the day Lisa Taylor and Darlanne Fluegel making an appearance, Rebecca Blake as a photography consultant and the set photos composed in collaboration with Helmut Newton.
Laura Mars’ image-making is styled on that of Helmut Newton. He was a photographer who straddled the gap between commerce and art (although he did not consider himself a photographer of the consumer society, nor did he claim to produce art), and became celebrated for his controversial, provocative scenarios, containing elements of voyeurism and fantasy. Often shocking, often shot in the street and real interiors rather than in the studio, his work was often charged with sexual themes with fetishistic undertones. His photography conjured up scenes that went beyond the realities of fashion, but always connected to reality, his own reality. “The world that I photograph is very particular: there are always, or almost always, the same kind of characters, there are always women, women that are apparently rich,” Newton concurred. “I photograph the upper class because I’m well acquainted with it. I prefer to stick with what I know. People have said that my photos have nothing at all to do with reality. That’s not true: everything is based on reality.” But one senses some real tension there, in Newton’s photographs, which comes from a desire to provoke, because he liked and looked for reactions, for something “that seems surprising and then is accepted.”
German-born, Helmut Newton was an apprentice to portrait, nude and fashion photographer Yva in Berlin before emigrating to Australia where he served in the army during World War II. After the war, he worked in Sydney as a freelance photographer, with stints in Europe taking photos for British Vogue. He moved to Paris in the 1960s and became a regular contributor to French Elle and the British and Paris Vogue. Newton’s daring work has been a major influence on modern photography and visual art, because he was “only interested in the present,” “only describing what he knows and what he sees,” Karl Lagerfeld said. The fashion designer described the photographer’s work as “his own very particular way of idealising a reality which is not always ideal.”
In Eyes of Laura Mars, too, voyeurism is a central theme, with Laura’s eyes seeing not only what makes a great fashion shot, but also brutal visions of murders among her friends and colleagues that are yet to take place. The story and screenplay were written by John Carpenter, but additional writers were brought along subsequently and unfortunately the plot doesn’t hold that tight right until the end. But Faye Dunaway makes a beautiful role. She is a fashion photographer with a piercing gaze and unswerving vision for her work. Even if her work is the subject of controversy and its validity is constantly questioned in a hostile and male-dominated society. It’s fascinating because it’s her perception of the world around her (maybe even a reaction to the absurd egocentrism of human nature, or maybe mirroring the decade’s obsession with sex, excess and status) and her place in the world of the times she lives in – also a time that was approaching the twilight of a period in Hollywood when an independent cinema (socially-savvy, thematically-complex, sexually-charged, anti-establishment and prompting, and then accepting, uncertain and discomforting responses) had briefly flourished.
Faye Dunaway had played a New York photographer before, alongside Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor. Her photographs were very different there: empty streets, barren trees, silenced cities, everything in black and white. And Robert Redford’s Joe Turner is first to realise she may have more in common with his alienation and desolation than she would care to admit or even realise. “It’s winter,” is her simple answer to his precise questions about her images. I wonder how Laura Mars started out in photography.
There is this sequence in Eyes of Laura Mars (image above) when Faye Dunaway crosses a street jammed with cars, one of them a yellow cab. One of Helmut Newton’s photographs of New York is shot from a balcony overlooking a street scattered with cars, one of them a yellow cab. On the balcony, a naked woman lies on the floor, face down, in an odd position, possibly the consequence of a violent act. This image could easily be a vision of Laura Mars. Because her photographs constantly insinuate themselves into Laura Mars’ life.
Despite her overtly sexual and violent images (does she see fashion as fake as it really is, highlighting the act of looking?), there’s restraint in Laura Mars. And I think that again speaks about the seriousness of her work. She is a professional. She is serious about her work and in complete control. She is super-cool and always elegantly dressed (the film was costumed by Theoni V. Aldredge, with Bernadette C. Mann in charge of Faye Dunaway’s wardrobe) and always covered up: crepe-de-chine blouses, turtle-neck sweaters, capes, high boots. Even her double side slit skirts are part of her look for a reason: they afford her freedom of movement when she takes photos. Her clothes are a rendition of 1970s glamour, the discrete, refined part, not the provocative disco decadence. Actually, Laura Mars’ wardrobe calls to mind that of another die-hard professional played by Dunaway, from a completely different field: Diana Christensen, the television executive of cunning ambition and lack of feeling who lives for her career in Sidney Lumet’s Network (where her 70’s working-woman costumes were once more designed by Theoni V. Aldridge). “I chose very carefully how my characters would be remembered,” Faye Dunaway revealed in an interview for Vogue, in 2018. “I still have a strict eye for detail.” Laura Mars is a product of her time, but also of what she makes of it.
This piece is published courtesy of classiq.me
Editorial sources: Helmut Newton Foundation / Helmut Newton Photofile, by Thames and Hudson