Paint It Black: ‘The Big Picture’ Offers an Insider’s View of Film Stars

Film buffs of the CinemaScope era should see the behind-the-scenes images by John R. Hamilton on display at the Laguna Design Center in “The Big Picture.” Leading men at the peak of their everlasting appeal are immediately recognizable: Steve McQueen flipping the bird, a shirtless Clint Eastwood having breakfast in bed. Paul Newman fills a doorway as no one else ever will in Paul Newman, Feet Up, Reading, Smoking a Cigar.

“John Hamilton’s photographs were intimate and sexy, and he captured our heroes in American cinema like no one else,” says high-fashion photographer Bruce Weber, who rescued Hamilton’s personal archive from oblivion, publishing a weighty collection called John Hamilton: Thank Your Lucky Stars in 2003.

Two photos of these wide-screen icons stumped me: a woman wearing stretch pants tucked into go-go boots sitting sideways in the driver’s seat of a car and a man riding a bicycle with his legs crossed on the handlebars grinning at the photographer. Newman was the bicyclist goofing off on the backlot. In Ann-Margret In Car (1966, shooting Stagecoach in Colorado), there’s no evidence of the breathy hottie. “Ann-Margret has a collection of wheels in her garage: Rolls Royce, Jaguar XKE, a gold mini car and six-wheel amphibian,” wrote Hamilton about the shot. However, men on or in cars make up half the show.

Hamilton began as a photojournalist, but he came into his own as an on-set photographer beginning with The Searchers (1956). John Wayne (On Set), taken in Monument Valley during that shoot, make it obvious why Hamilton was called “Remington with a camera.” Proceeds from prints depicting Wayne sold benefit the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. “[Hamilton] gave us an insider’s view of incredibly private people,” says Weber, “capturing a special world that is somewhere between a movie set and home.”

On-set camaraderie between crew and talent made that location/home mashup ideal for shenanigans. In Kirk Douglas “Trailer” Yard, Hamilton snaps Douglas posing with pride in a G-stringy pair of tighty-whities on location for There Was a Crooked Man (1970). “The actors were housed in trailers during the location,” noted Hamilton, “and the prop men on the film became so fond of Kirk that they began redecorating and adding to his. First, they put up an awning and picket fence, then an umbrella’d patio set, a working fountain pool, then a mailbox, and finally the inevitable signs warning peddlers and visitors alike.” The bottom-most warning on the sign? “Deliveries in rear.”

My favorite is Frank and Sammy (1961), which shows a smiling Sammy Davis Jr. hiding with a camera, ready to scare the crap out of Sinatra in his sergeant’s outfit, looking as serious as if he were in the middle of shooting a scene. The many portraits of their buddy Dean Martin seem to prove his lush act was just that.

The exhibit’s title is a throwback to the advent of the wide screen, the epic nature of Westerns and the full personas of these larger-than-life stars. The curation is simple, with a section for John Wayne and a corner for “boys with their toys”—where a 1956 Porsche 550A Spyder is parked, on loan from a board member. But the archival pigment prints are framed beautifully and available as vintage silver prints as well, which, if you are going to splurge, is the way to go.

“The Big Picture” at Laguna Design Center, 23811 Aliso Creek Rd., Ste. 105, Laguna Niguel, (949) 643-2929; Open Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Dec. 31. Free.

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