Pretty In The Past: Lena Horne

Allan describes the transcendental quality of the actress Lena Horne and Mari shows you how to recreate her iconic look...
Publish date:
March 6, 2013

[We're trying out a new Pretty in the Past format - Allan has teamed up with Mari to do a super-snazzy get the look for each subject as well. I think it looks amazing, but what do you think? --Rebecca]

Like many people my age, I first became aware of Lena Horne through her appearances on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, where - despite the fact that she was the same age as my grandmother - I immediately determined she was one of the most beautiful woman I had ever seen on my television.

(Note: We are not responsible for the tears that may result upon viewing of the video seen below. That said, if tears do not result from watching this clip, we advise you to go to your nearest doctor and have them perform the necessary tests to determine you’re not an emotionless cyborg sent from the future.)

By that time, she already possessed the aura of transcendent resonance that most public figures only earn after they are gone. Without anyone saying it, it was clear that she was special in a way few others are, which is why - when I was older - I was so shocked to discover how little time she had actually spent on movie screens.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Her peak performing years came at a time when Hollywood did its best to ignore the existence of black audiences and most often treated African-American performers as novelties at best, racist caricatures at worst. But sometimes they did make an effort to make projects that were at least marginally more progressive.

In the case of Cabin in the Sky, it helped that it had originated as a Broadway musical. It wasn’t a big hit - lasting only 156 performances when it premiered in 1940 - but MGM was a studio that depended largely on musicals for its success and adapting a pre-existing production was a lot more cost-effective than creating a new one. But it wasn’t without its risks. Cabin would mark the first time a major studio made a big-budget film with an all-black cast in a period where many theatres - especially in the south - would refuse to show it.

The story was about a ne’er-do-well named Little Joe (Eddie Anderson, best known for his work with Jack Benny) who is murdered over gambling debts and told he can’t go to Heaven unless he redeems himself on Earth. He’s given six months to get it done or else face eternal damnation. He’s helped on his mission by the good-hearted Petunia (Ethyl Waters), but Lucifer Junior (Rex Ingram) decides not to play fair and sends the gorgeous Sweet Georgia Brown (Lena) to tempt him away from her and send him on a path straight to Hell.

Then a nightclub star who had started out on the stage of the legendary Cotton Club, Lena was MGM’s first (and only) choice to play Georgia and they offered her a long-term contract to make it happen. It was the first time a major studio made such a deal with a black performer and it wasn’t uncontroversial.

Except for Cabin, many of Lena’s parts were deliberately kept from having anything to do with the film’s plot, so her scenes could be easily cut out of the prints sent to southern theatres. Even her role in Cabin wasn’t exempt from the censor’s scissors. Her solo song, Ain’t It the Truth was cut out of the film because her appearance in a bubble bath was deemed too suggestive by people we can now mock for being idiots.

Lena ended up only making five films for MGM before her liberal politics got her in trouble with the studio establishment and got her put on the infamous blacklist. 23 years would pass before she appeared in another movie. But she didn’t need movie screens to shine. Her best work was done on the much more intimate nightclub stage, where she truly earned her status as a legend.

Looking back at her performance as Georgia in Cabin, it’s interesting to note the slight disconnect between the Lena of legend and the 26 year-old woman in the film. The character is one of a long line of cinematic seductresses and though she plays the part perfectly, she is never quite able to convincingly evince the casual heartlessness of an infernal temptress. Her light is too bright and it’s hard to see her as a femme fatale.

But what isn’t hard to believe is that a man might be willing to risk Hell for her affection. Her look in Cabin is very much of the '40s, but it hasn’t lost any of its power over time. It’s both strong and confident and winsome and adorable all at once. It’s girlish, yet fully self-aware - combining the playful with the purposeful. Quite appropriately, it’s a devilishly effective combination.

I’ll now let Mari take the floor and tell you how you can replicate for yourself.

What you will need:

Hair donut

Contouring shade (I used Lise Watier Portfolio Corrector in Beige, but my favourite productfor contouring is Urban Decay's Eyeshadow in Buck).

Red lip pencil (I used MAC's Brick)

Red lipstick (I used Dolce and Gabbana's Iconic)

Brow kit (I used Benefit Brow Zings Brow Shaping kit)

Take the hair donut (which you can usually find at your local pound store) and cut it up so it looks like a smile.

Section off the front bit of your hair – this part will be your fringe. Take the donut and place it behind the hair you just sectioned off (basically, in front of your face). Tucking the ends of your hair towards your face, roll the donut towards you until it’s on the top of your head. Say hello to your 40s bangs and pin in place.

Then style your hair however you please - I went with the half up, half down route.

Since Lena's face is all about perfectly chiseled features, and I'm a bit more round and blobular, it's time to cheat, cheat, cheat.

Fake those cheekbones by placing your contour shade just below your own. Slim your nose by using the contour colour down the sides. Blending is key.

Eyes - I used the same contour shade in the crease, and kept the mascara focused on the outer corners of my lashes. Lena’s got full, beautiful brows so I got a little help from a brow kit. Using an angled brush and matching brow powder, fill in your natural brows. Add a bit more, if you’re feeling particularly bold.

Lips - Use lip liner to create that perfect heart shaped lip. Lisa Eldridge and Charlotte Tilbury have a great video that shows just how to do that, here. I used MAC's lip liner in Brick followed by Dolce & Gabbana lipstick in Iconic.

That's it. Playful and purposeful – summon your inner Lena!