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    The Forties and the Fifties: Fascinating and Freaky

    By Jan Wahl–

    Oppenheimer joins Barbie as they take the box office by storm. Nobody expected the movie about America’s blonde doll and her hunky boyfriend Ken to join up with the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to breathe life back into our movie theatres. I loved both films. One is a smart, feminist satire. The other is a powerful biopic of the troubled life of the scientist who co-developed and designed the atom bomb.

    Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders, Breakfast on Pluto) stars as Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan Project that led to the creation of the atom bomb. Director Christopher Nolan based the film on the biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwood. Nolan is a remarkably visual auteur filmmaker, proven in films such as The Dark Knight, Interstellar, Inception, and Dunkirk. Oppenheimer is an ambitious narrative, taking us on a three-hour journey that I never left so that I wouldn’t miss anything. Use the restroom first!

    This epic, though deeply contemplative, film costars Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Rami Malek, Emily Blunt, and Florence Pugh. Oppenheimer oversaw the construction of the Los Alamos Laboratory, gathering the best minds in physics to create the bomb ahead of the Germans and the Russians. UC Berkeley is a large part of the story, as is the McCarthy hearings that put an end to Oppenheimer’s career. Oscar nominations should be across the board for this film, one that deserves to be shown to universities and students of history, science, and politics everywhere.

    Looking Back at the Fifties

    One of the finest books on American film history is The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties by Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair. This is the definitive take on the moral vacuity, sex, paranoia, stars, and scandals of this decade. From the great Marilyn Monroe’s twangy version of “That Old Black Magic” from Bus Stop to Novak and Holden dancing sensuously in Picnic, from Tony Curtis and Lancaster spitting poison at each other in the Sweet Smell of Success to the tragedy of the Hollywood blacklist, this is one juicy read. 

    This year we saw the fine documentary Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed. In the book All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson, we delve deeply into Rock’s marriage to Phyllis Gates and her sad life after their union.

    Gossip was big business in the fifties, from Parsons and Hopper to sleaze magazines determined to destroy careers. Going back to The Bad and the Beautiful—it takes us into the scandals of not only Rock, but also Liberace, Lana Turner, Errol Flynn, and Robert Mitchum.

    Musicals were huge at this time, and the tome takes us behind the scenes of An American in Paris, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and even Mae West’s Las Vegas debut (“I feel like a million tonight, but one at a time.”) West had declined Billy Wilder’s offer for her to play Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. so the role went to fifty-year-old Gloria Swanson. (I’m still angry that Swanson didn’t win Best Actress for that amazing performance, but I digress.) 

    Melodramas like Peyton Place, Suddenly Last Summer, Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, and Rebel Without a Cause kept the fifties sizzling hot, with audiences loving the work of Sirk, Wilder, Inge, Tennessee Williams, and the creativity of Gene Kelly. The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties is a great page turner that will also have you revisiting the works of the fascinating and freaky fifties.

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian and film critic on various broadcast outlets. She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at

    Off the Wahl
    Published on September 7, 2023