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Met's Alexander McQueen Tribute Evokes Memories of a Movie

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The gala tribute on Monday night to the late designer, Alexander McQueen, at the Costume Institute Gala for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, hosted by Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, evokes memories for me both sad and unique. In 2004 I received a call from London from a woman named Isabelle Blow, who told me that she worked with fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen, and that his Spring 2004 show would be based on a film with which I was intimately associated, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? A 1969 production of ABC's Palomar Pictures, of which I was Production V.P., you may recall that precedent-setting picture was a depression-era story of a dance marathon starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin (who died in Canada this month at the age of 70), Suzannah York (who also died last month), Gig Young, and my close buddy Red Buttons. Brilliantly directed by the late Sydney Pollack and produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, it was to be the theme of his unusual fashion show. I answered many questions she had and then sent her a collection of still photos from the film. She later called me to say that the show had been a grand success. A review said the powerful show was choreographed with models and professional dancers roving around a wooden marathon dance floor similar to the one we had built in Santa Monica for the film. "The clothes were, as always, magical: dilapidated dresses elaborately constructed from a patchwork of fabric; sorrowful chiffon dresses weighed down with tarnished sequins." On Monday, British model-singer Karen Elson wore a silver beaded dress which she had modeled in that fashion show seven years ago.

Of course we all know that McQueen's successor at the label, Sarah Burton, had received the commission of a lifetime this past week with the Kate wedding gown... and fulfilled it with grace and style. McQueen, who committed suicide last year at age 40 a few days after the death of his beloved mother, was a powerful and unusual figure, and I have followed his career with deep interest. He was a working-class kid, a hard-bitten commoner (his father was a cabbie and they lived in the projects, where, in that apartment, he began designing as a boy) who elevated himself into the rarified status of a Commander of the British Empire. A recent story said that "his rough demeanor and uncensored rudeness made him a dangerous and magnetic presence." Amazing accomplishment.

A word about the film, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? based upon a depression-era novel by Horace McCoy. In 1968 a writer named James Poe was brought in to Palomar by my friend, Theodore Sills. My partner in the production company, Ed Sherick, and I listened as he gave us a long treatment of the novel, saying he wanted to direct it himself in the shabby La Monica Ballroom on the Santa Monica Pier, which would serve as the dance marathon site. Eventually, when Jane Fonda came aboard and asked for script changes (made by Robert Thompson), we bought in the talented actor-turned-director Sydney Pollack and the two experienced (Rocky) producers, Bob and Irwin. Gig Young was hired to play the weary, wasted Master-of-Ceremonies and I asked comic Red Buttons to play one of the contestants, an aging sailor, all vying for the $1500 prize. (Red won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.) The film played well at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival and opened in the U.S. to unanimously fine reviews. Horses was nominated in nine categories at the Academy Awards and Gig Young won for Best Supporting Actor.

Which will explain why I read all the stories of Monday's McQueen festivities with more than casual interest. I relish the tale of a homespun youth coming from humble roots in a class-ridden society who, while troubled and anguished, epitomized the possibilities inherent in the worlds of fashion and film.

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