HOLLYWOOD HAIRSTYLIST: FROM MARLENE DIETRICH TO MARLON BRANDO
You need to meet film Hairstylist Vera Mitchell, who worked with countless Hollywood stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Lawrence Olivier and Marlon Brando. You can meet her at the United Makeup Artist Exhibition in London on May 7 and May 8.
In a career spanning more than 40 years Vera Mitchell has worked with a host of legends of the Hollywood ‘golden era’. From Alec Guinness and Ingrid Bergman to superstars such as Al Pacino, Mel Gibson, and Brad Pitt.
Vera has also worked with some of the greatest film directors including David Lean, Michael Mann and Steven Spielberg.
Such is her talent that Spielberg once sent her a message by donkey, whilst she was living on a remote Mediterranean island, requesting her services on a film.
HAIRSTYLIST TO THE STARS
Vera Mitchell welcomes me at her home in North London with a radiant smile and says, “Do come in my dear, come in and sit down. How do you take your tea?”
Vera looks immaculate. Her blonde hair is styled to perfection, her hazel green eyes framed by classic strokes of winged liner and her subtly applied lipstick matches her perfectly painted nails.
She is vivacious and warm and instantly puts you at ease. It’s obvious how her unique charm and natural charisma must have endeared her to so many actors and performers throughout her phenomenal career.
With feigned horror Vera refuses to admit her age, but explains she is one of five siblings born in Stoke Newington in London. Her father did catering for private functions for the ‘well to do’ whilst her mother immersed them in her love of opera, regularly taking her children to see live performances.
At just eleven years of age Vera began regularly applying hair colour for her Jewish neighbour who, delighted by her skill, suggested she should train to be a hairdresser.
Vera began a coveted five year apprenticeship at high-end salon Richard Henry of London & Rome, based in Kensington, which tended to the hair of London’s aristocracy.
Working for a mere £1 & 19 shillings a week Vera mastered her craft under the watchful eye of Renee himself. It was he who took the fresh faced girl in tweed and taught her how to mould her hair into a French pleat and insisted that she apply red lipstick perfectly, every day before work.
After qualifying she quickly became bored but saw an advertisement for the English National Opera which excited her. At the interview she was asked to comb out a wig for a character for a production.
Vera had never actually worked with wigs before but applied her hairdressing skills and produced a look from her favourite opera Madame Butterfly; they offered her the job that day.
Working six days a week on eight opera productions she worked long hours but loved the excitement of the pace of work.
“It was like a crash course in all the historical periods and we had to work at such speed. At least fifteen principle actors and sometimes hundreds of background artists, so many quick changes and always having to think on your feet. I absolutely loved it,” says Vera.
WIG CREATIONS OF LONDON
A few years later she took a position which would change her life. Vera went to work with Wig Creations of London run by the fabulous Stanley Hall (who created wigs for screen legend Mae West) and his partner “The Major”.
Vera explains, “Wig Creations had a stranglehold on the wig market throughout Europe but that’s because they were the very best. They supplied the wigs to everyone, the BBC, ITV, all the big theatres and opera companies and the film studios.”
Wig Creations hand crafted and designed all the wigs for the great musicals such as My Fair Lady and big budget epics like Cleopatra as well as tending to the hair needs of all the film icons such as Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Katherine Hepburn and Sophia Loren.
Initially Vera worked upstairs in Wig Creations on the workshop floor where nearly 200 staff were divided into departments covering everything from sourcing raw hair, dying hair, wig making, wig setting and styling, as well as facial hair and beards.
Vera was quickly promoted to head of the wig styling department and was often called to assist the designers in the far more salubrious surroundings downstairs.
“The artist fitting rooms were draped in satin and it was all very chic. The designers were usually wonderfully camp queens who were fabulous with ‘the talent’ and could also draw marvellous sketches. But none of them were hairdressers so when things got technical they would call me down to do the practical, hands-on stuff,” says Vera.
It was here that Vera would meet and work with Marlene Dietrich. “After Max Factor closed all the Hollywood actors came to Wig Creations in London, to have their wigs fitted and that’s when I met Marlene.”
Called down to assist during the star’s first visit to the studio, the formidable Marlene Dietrich instructed Vera to set her wigs exactly the way Max Factor had done. But Marlene also told Vera to ensure the hair would ‘float with movement’.
Vera found Max Factor’s wigs were set rather a little tightly. So she took a risk, setting one wig according to Mr Factor’s instructions and setting another to her own design. Vera presented both to Marlene the next day and upon inspection the actress declared “I want it Vera’s way.”
Vera’s hair skills were becoming more in demand and she went on to work at the prestigious National and Old Vic theatres where she worked closely with the likes of Alec Guinness and Lawrence Olivier.
She also worked at the Haymarket with the wonderful Ingrid Bergman while she was performing in the production Waters of the Moon. Vera remembers the hundreds of bouquets, tokens and gifts that would arrive for Ms. Bergman after every show.
Vera recalls, “One night in her dressing room after an admirer had sent her the sheet music to Casablanca Ingrid said, ‘You’d think I never did another film. You know I never actually sang in that movie!’ Suddenly she just started singing ‘A kiss is just a kiss, a smile is just a smile’ and demanded that her dresser Louise and I join in the song.”
Ingrid Bergman declared, “There! That’s the only time I’m ever going to sing it!” As Vera says, “It was an extraordinary moment in my life.”
From there on Vera began effectively freelancing, moving from production to production with all the big West End theatres including working with Peter O’Toole on the famous production of Macbeth at the Old Vic.
She became known fondly as ‘Vera the Wig Lady’ and was often called in to work on wigs for the BBC and film studio productions, although she was not officially allowed on set as she was not a union member.
Whilst prepping wigs for a Mel Brookes film she met David Bowie and over a cup of tea he told her how he was off to Christmas Island. With a twinkle in her eye Vera says “I told him I was off to Sheffield next week.”
THE MOVIE BUSINESS
And then one day she got a phone call, on behalf of producer Terry Clegg, asking if she would come out to India.
Vera explains, “He said ‘Can you come out on Friday?’ Well of course I said yes. That was on the Wednesday. I didn’t even own a suitcase let alone a passport!”
After a frantic visit to Petite France for a rushed passport and with a borrowed suitcase Vera climbed aboard Air India first class.
“I left a bitterly cold British winter and got off the plane in India. It was the first time I had travelled abroad. I thought I had landed in heaven. The heat, the colours, the noise, the elephants! I stepped onto the set of Gandhi and it was glorious,” says Vera.
She was asked to come out for two weeks. Vera ended up working on Gandhi for eight months. There had been problems with a number of wigs which were ‘reading flat on camera’ and no one had been able to solve the issue.
Vera figured out the problem immediately, “The wigs were too dark, flat blue black. That is not a true reflection of real Indian hair. Dark hair is not just one, flat colour; it has a mix of subtle hues which add light and vibrancy which is vital in order to look natural on camera.”
She set about refining the wigs and quickly settled into working life on a film set. It also helped boost her confidence that she had already met most of the actors on the production, previously in her working career. Vera laughs as she says “Mr. Attenborough was tickled by that, one day he asked me if there was anybody I didn’t know in his cast. It was a wonderful time and by then I knew that my life had changed forever.”
After Vera returned to the UK she received a panicked phone call from Simon Thompson asking for help on wigs for the Beatles film Give My Regards to Broad Street. Vera worked through the night to create a host of pink glittering wigs which were lined up ready by breakfast time.
Simon was delighted and asked her to come help fit the wigs but when she walked on set the union crew members objected. Fortunately one of the most influential makeup artists of the time, Tom Smith (whom Vera had met on the set of Gandhi) was on the crew and came to her defence.
Vera’s face lights up as she says, “Tom just said ‘You need her, you need wig people, let’s have a show of hands to vote her into the union.’ So they finally voted me in, there and then.”
“The next day the phone kept ringing and I had so many offers of film work. It was thrilling. I went on to work on several films with the wonderful Raymond Gow on five films and eventually on a Bond film. It was wonderful.”
Vera also worked on A Passage to India with director David Lean, whom she adored. The legendary director whose masterpieces included Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivargo, had a huge impact upon Vera.
“He was an incredible director and it was a sublime experience working with him. I respected him enormously. He had an astute intelligence that looked straight through people and even at 76 he was still excited by telling a story.”
“It was thrilling for me working with him. He was marvellous at rehearsing the actors; you could hear a pin drop on the set. And he was an absolute gentleman, ‘old school’. He only worked civilised hours. He never shot late. Everyone would finish for dinner at 6pm and even on night shoots he never filmed past midnight.”
During the gulf war the British film industry suffered a slump, hindered by Thatcher’s harsh tax hikes. Vera suddenly found work harder to come by and at her sister’s suggestion put together a resume, in order to look for work in America.
“My sister had a friend who worked on Spitting Image and he drew this marvellous picture of me using a lawn mower cutting the heads of all the wonderful actors and actresses I had worked with over the years. I got copies made and sent them off to the States. But to be honest I didn’t really think anything would come of it.”
Just a few weeks later Hollywood director Alan Marshall telephoned Vera. He loved her unique resume and said if she was ever in LA she should definitely come and see him.
In a huge leap of faith Vera mustered the courage and the £300 for a return flight. She booked into a cheap motel and paid Marshall a visit. He offered her a job on a Danny Devito film.
She started work almost immediately but within days a call came from the American union. Vera had no desire to offend the union and without anyone to propose membership for her, she withdrew from the production. She called in her dear friend Paul Huntley (whom she had worked with at Wig Creations and who was now successfully based on Broadway) to step in.
By the time Vera arrived back at her motel astonishingly there was a message waiting for her from another Hollywood director. The award-winning Michael Mann wanted to meet with her. He was about to start production on Last of the Mohicans which would be shot in the ‘right to work’ state of North Carolina (which negated the Union issue).
Vera met with Michael and they hit it off immediately. She returned to the UK with a contract in her hand and three months to research and prepare for the film.
With her Uncle, who was an artist and sculptor, she spent hours in the British Museum and together they created seven huge books of sketches, images and reference resources as well as incorporating material from the original regimental rules from records at the military museum in Chelsea.
When Michael Mann came to London to meet Daniel Day Lewis and meet again with Vera, he took one look at her research and insisted it all be copied and shipped to the US for the production.
Such was their collaboration that Vera would go on to work on another four films with Mann including the films Ali and Heat, prompting her to relocate to Los Angeles.
There she was introduced to a lawyer who enabled her to regularly apply for a 01 work permit – which was granted for her specialist wig skills. It was a costly process but Vera was determined not to offend the union. Eventually they came to her on the film Heat and finally invited her to officially join.
Vera is immensely respectful of those she feels privileged to have worked with during her career and none more so than Marlon Brando. Widely considered to be the greatest screen actor of all time, Brando formed a profound friendship with Vera which lasted until his untimely death in 2004.
Vera fist met Marlon when he came for a wig fitting at Pinewood studios back in the late 80s. He fell asleep whilst Vera was removing colour from his hair.
“There he was with a head full of bleach and tin foil fast asleep and I needed to get him to the sink to rinse it off. I almost had to carry him and afterwards he collapsed back into his chair, instantly falling asleep again. I managed to give him a smart haircut and then left him to rest with pillows to keep him comfortable.”
Later Marlon would confess he had only been pretending to be asleep just to see how she would cope. Vera would leave a lasting impression on Brando and he requested her as his principle stylist for his next film.
Vera tells me, “I was ever so fond of him and I think he liked me because I was never fawning or sycophantic with him. I always talked straight with him. And he liked that.”
“It’s always hard to be friends with a famous actor. It’s really not the ‘done thing’ in our job but there was just this tremendous connection.”
Vera would go on to work with Brando throughout the remainder of his career and there is a small framed photograph of the actor on her hallway wall. It resides next to her copious collection of wonderful hats that have travelled with her on film productions around the world.
Following her diagnosis three years ago she now resides permanently in London and she feels truly blessed for every day since.
However Vera worries that standards of hairdressing in the British film industry are not what they once were. She is passionate about preserving traditional wig making and dressing skills
“I have a deep sadness that wig skills feel like a dying art. We must invest in hair and wig styling training. We cannot allow those skills to disappear because the British film industry would be poorer for it.”Come meet Vera in person at the UMA Expo May 7 & 8 (www.umae.co.uk) and discover more training opportunities in wig styling and dressing with the National Theatre and at the NASMAH stand -(www.nasmah.co.uk)