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Barbara Steele

Barbara Steele

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Also Known As: Died:
Born: December 29, 1937 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Wirrall, England, GB Profession: Cast ...
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NOTES

"This British actress is revered by her fans for her talent, emotional range, wit, intelligence, erotic sexuality, and a beauty that is mysterious and unique. . . her face can be either evil or sweet, depending on the beholder. So in "Black Sunday", she was effective playing both the evil vampire-witch and the gentle heroine; in other horror films, she alternated between heroines and wicked women with blood lusts [often in the same film!]."--From "Cult Movie Stars" by Danny Peary (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1991)

Remarking on the peculiar hybrid quality of Italian horror films, British film critic Kim Newman writes in "Nightmare Movies" (NY: Harmony Books, 1988): "The happiest result of this curious anglophilia was the career of Barbara Steele, who became typecast as a witchlike FEMME FATALE after her performances in [Mario] Bava's "La Maschera del demonio" ("Mask of Satan") (1960) and [Riccardo] Freda's "L'Orrible segretto del Dr. Hitchcock" ("The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock") (1962). Blessed with a haunted face and a dry-ice sensuality, Steele is one of the screen's great vampires, although since she was once quoted as never wanting 'to climb out of another fucking coffin again' she is probably unhappy with the distinction."

Writing on "Black Sunday" in "5001 Nights at the Movies" (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1991), Pauline Kael observes: "The resurrected 200-year-old witch Princess Asa and the beautiful Princess Katia are both played by the English actress Barbara Steele in a deadpan manner that makes evil and good all but indistinguishable; in both roles, she looks like Jacqueline Kennedy in a trance. But you wouldn't want her to be any different."

In the "Encyclopedia of European Cinema" (NY: Facts on File, 1995), Carol Jenks wrote: "Steele has always maintained that anyone could have played the role [in "Black Sunday"], but the film is structured around her physical presence. . . . Her operatic, gestural style of performance brought back the figure of the silent film diva, but it was her face in close-up that inspired a unique fetishistic fascination. With her chalky skin, high cheekbones and flowing black hair, she became the paradoxical image of a living-death mask, a head of the Medusa which the camera could never fix or penetrate as completely as the mask of the title does when its spikes are hammered into her."

Writer-director David Cronenberg (in an unattributed interview from the Internet) described how he got a former porn actress to cry for "They Came From Within" (1975). After rubbing onion slices under her eyes failed, she insisted that Cronenberg slap her around. It worked.

"Then Barbara Steele arrives, and the first scene she has to do with Sue is when she gives her a parasite kiss. So its pretty tricky; low-budget stuff throws you into that because you have no time for niceties. So Barbara is sitting there, and everybody on the crew is now completely blase about our technique for making Sue cry. . . . It's business as usual. We roll the camera. Barbara's all ready, but I don't say 'Action'. Sue and I go into the kitchen. Barbara's wondering what the fuck's going on. So it's smack, smack, smack; shriek, shriek, shriek. Sue comes out sobbing. Great. Barbara is horrified; there's a look of total shock and anger on her face. I say, 'Action, action. Do it, do it!'"

Cronenberg's narrative continues:

"When it's 'Cut', Barbara stands up (she's real big, and she was in high heels) and literally grabs me by the lapels and lifts me up. She says, 'You bastard! I've worked with some of the best directors in the world. I've worked with Fellini. I've never, in my life, seen a director treat an actress like that. You bastard!' She was going to punch me out. I said, 'No, Barbara, don't hit me. She made me. I hate doing it, I'm afraid to do take two!' 'Really?' she says. 'Yes, really.' Barbara let's me go. 'How hard were you hitting her?' she asks, 'Show me.' She holds out her forearm and I hit it hard. 'That hard?' 'Yes,' I say. 'Hmm.' says Barbara. A pause, and then her eyes fix on me. 'Do I have any scenes where I cry?' That was my introduction to the world of actresses."

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