Thursday, October 29, 2009

Molten Lavi

Go to any mall, ask passersby if they can tell you who the current Secretary of Defense is and you will likely get blank stares in return. Thus, it’s pretty damn unlikely that anyone will have ever heard of Daliah Lavi either! However, it is their loss if they haven’t.

Despite being born in Israel and frequently being referred to as an “Israeli actress,” Miss Lavi is actually the child of a German mother and a Russian father and, as master of six or eight languages, is truly the epitome of an international performer.

Originally intending to become a dancer, she attended the Royal Opera House in Stockholm as a young girl before a medical condition (and the health of her father) led her to abandon that dream and return to Israel. There, she became a model, which led into film work.

Apart from one role in a Swedish film while at school, her earliest movies were either French, German or Italian productions. In 1962, she appeared in Vincente Minneli’s Two Weeks in Another Town. A year later, she was Christopher Lee’s leading lady in the then-controversial, sadomasochistic-tinged Whip and the Body (a role that earned her a cult of devoted fans.)

Her distinctively dark features allowed her to play any variety of roles from an Apache maiden in Shatterhand (with Lex Barker) to a Eurasian girl in the epic Lord Jim, based on a Joseph Conrad novel and starring Peter O’Toole. Her work here is considered her most impressive acting-wise.

A lean, exotic beauty, she came along at a time when hairstyles and fashions were becoming increasingly over-the-top, but she could pull off practically any look. She was put into incredibly glamorous outfits and coiffed with ornate and striking hairdos, some of which almost looked ridiculous and would have buried a lesser woman, but she made them work. In Ten Little Indians (1965) with Hugh O’Brian, she had an impenetrable helmet hairstyle that could have caused its own ozone layer hole and was at one point placed in an outfit that featured hilarious white “cotton balls” on it. I’m gaga over her big, beaded necklace that looks like something Joan Crawford might have worn as a bracelet in the 60s to compliment her own necklace (which would be, of course, 6 times bigger than this one!)

She’s probably best remembered for her work in several spy spoofs of the mid-60s. Dean Martin made four Matt Helm flicks and she appeared in one of the better ones, The Silencers, as a slinky, dangerous beauty. There was also The Spy with a Cold Nose with Laurence Harvey and Casino Royale (1967) with Woody Allen.

In 1968, she did The High Commissioner with Rod Taylor, Christopher Plummer and Lilli Palmer (the latter two pictured here), playing a politically attuned socialite and her appearance is so glamorous it would make any drag queen roll over and play dead. This era is my all-time favorite for hair and make-up and many actresses and singers, including Inger Stevens and Nancy Ames, wore hair piled so high it seemed downright dangerous! Hilariously, the stylists for Commissioner tried to suggest that all of that hair was the character’s own, so when it’s not up, it’s shown incredibly long and thick. Love it, though!

By 1971, however, times had begun to change and her sort of magnificently put-together beauty was not as much in style. She worked with Yul Brynner and Leonard Nimoy in the western Catlow and then, for all intents and purposes was through acting in films.

Always a stunning presence physically, her acting talent was often in question, though she never really embarrassed herself. She seemed to be used a bit too often as showy window dressing in flashy films.

However, she discovered an entirely new career for herself when, on the advice of musical theatre star Topol, she began to record music. She enjoyed tremendous success at this in Germany and won an Otto award, an important distinction there. She adopted a slightly more natural look, with lighter, softer hair and less dark makeup.

Her grasp of various languages afforded her the ability to record songs in each one, ensuring her exposure across Europe. Though her greatest success at singing came in the early 70s, she continued to perform music regularly in concerts.

Daliah Lavi, a raven-haired, sultry siren aged in a way that is simultaneously unexpected and yet refreshingly right. She, for a time, wore long, full, mostly grey hair, completely at odds with her prior appearance, but then shifted to a chic, short ‘do that gives her the look of a cosmopolitan beauty of the world, which is what she is.

Of all places, she currently resides in Asheville, North Carolina and who knows whether she rubs elbows with the locals at Target and, if so, whether they even realize that the strikingly lovely woman in the next aisle over was, for about a decade, one of the most glorious, statuesque, sensual ladies to accessorize the cinema.

A surprising number of her films are available on DVD to those interested. They include, but are not limited to: Whip and the Body, Lord Jim, Ten Little Indians (1965), The Silencers, Casino Royale (1967), The High Commissioner and Catlow.

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