By Scott Ross
Richard Amsel’s artwork, evocative of earlier eras but infused with a modernist’s wit and self-conscious sense of style, graced the posters for many of the iconic American movies of the 1970s. His magazine cover art, for TV Guide especially, shimmered and his book covers gave his subjects an eloquence to match their own achievements. He died, a victim of the AIDS pandemic, at the obscenely early age of 37, but his best work is a timeless reminder of his own, particular and unduplicable, genius.
I first encountered this signature, as distinctive as the work it ornamented, on the poster for Murder on the Orient Express in 1974. It became a talisman for me; whenever I saw it, I could feel reasonably sure of a rich visual experience to accompany the signature.
This, almost unbelievably, is the work of the 18-year old Amsel, for his high school yearbook, in 1965.
An early self-portrait.
A delightful portrait of Carol Burnett and her gifted alter-ego, Vicki Lawrence:
Amsel’s study for a cover portrait of Lucille Ball, commemorating her retirement from regular series television. As glorious as the finished product was, some hint of soul was lost in the process.
The completed Lucy cover. Amsel said, “I did not want the portrait to be of Lucy Ricardo, but I didn’t want a modern-day Lucy Carter either. I wanted it to have the same timeless sense of glamour that Lucy herself has. She is, after all, a former Goldwyn Girl. I hoped to capture the essence of all this.”
Valerie Harper as Rhoda. Amsel captures the character’s quirky and stylish clothing choices.
The cover of the Divine Miss M LP.
Streisand in the curiously appropriate style of Klimt.
Lily Tomlin, for the cover of Time. She was starring in her Broadway debut, Appearing Nitely.
Amsel’s artwork for Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half-Shell Revue. Miss M as she might have been seen by Vargas.
The Divine Miss M in her most archetypal portrait. A New York friend tells me, “This was 6 stories high on The Palace Theater in Times Square.”
Midler a la Alphonse Mucha. Artwork for the Songs for the New Depression LP.
Midler’s once-indispensable backup trio, The Staggering Harlettes.
The marquee will eventually read “Act One: An Autobiography by Moss Hart.” Interestingly, there are no women in it to speak of in this famous memoir; Hart never mentions girls at all.
For a splendid study of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years, an appropriately shattered Scott, anchored by a Gatsby-esque figure.
The unholy marriage of Mucha and Klimt: Sacred (Duse) and profane (Madam.)
The “star” portraits are undistinguished, but Amsel’s depiction of Selznick captures his intensity, his anxiety, and his essential alone-ness.
The first Amsel I “owned”:
Marjorie Rosen’s overview of women in American movies is, to me, almost infinitely superior to Molly Haskell’s much more widely heralded From Reverence to Rape, and Amsel’s art for the paperback edition makes it that much more of a treat. Note the Art Deco filligree.
The mid-’70s era “Gatsby Craze” in full flower.
Hello, Dolly!: Amsel captures the “Gay 90s” feeling, filters it through late 1960s “pop,” and adds a Mucha headdress (with Spirographed flowers) to promote the musical that nearly broke its studio. If only the film had exhibited half as much life as Amsel’s artwork for it.
An early Amsel movie poster, for a cultural landmark.
Amsel’s first poser art for Robert Altman. The saloon-door plank and the carved filigree to either side capture the Western setting while the portraiture suggests the quirky nature of the leads in this, one of the late filmmaker’s true masterpieces.
Amsel’s jokey portrait of Burt Reynolds here is a humorous nod to his then-recent Penthouse centerfold as well and the total picture a canny evocation of Frazetta’s crime-caper movie posters of the 1960s.
A slightly (Bob) Peak-ish study, for What’s Up, Doc? Amsel limns both the oddball romance of the thing and its classic face nature (note the keys.) Streisand should have hired this man to be her full-time portraitist; she seldom looked more radiant than she did in one of his drawings.
Another one of those “If only the movie had been as distinguished” Amsel posters. That’s Ava Gardner in the background, as Bean’s unwitting inamorata Lily Langtree.
A superb Amsel image for Irvin Kershner’s underrated adaptation of the Anne Roiphe novel starring a non-singing Barbra. Note the integration of the star’s surname in the title.
One of Amsel’s most memorable designs, evoking the Saturday Evening Post of the 1930s.
Amsel based his concept for The Sting on J.C. Lyendecker’s “Arrow Collar” ads. That Lyendecker used his male lover as a model adds an interesting, if unintentional, twist to what was perceived by some critics as the movie’s un-articulated homoerotic undercurrent.
A lovely Amsel image for the last Lerner and Leowe musical, best remembered for Bob Fosse’s marvelous “Snake in the Grass” sand-dance.
I’d seen Amsel’s work before, but his brilliant design for Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express was the first that really captured my attention, in 1974. It’s all there: The evocation of the 1930s, the starry cast, the train, and even the murder weapon. Wouldn’t this make you want to see the movie? (From top left: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassal, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Dame Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and Michael York.)
Amsel’s splendid design for the Stanley Donen mis-fire Lucky Lady. If the movie had been half as good as this…
An Amsel design for Nashville. Note that he captures the 24 main characters, the country-and-western milieu, and the sense, despite the seemingly amorphous quality of the narrative arc, that something is about to explode.
A striking Amsel design for a very, very bad movie. Elia Kazan directed this supposed evocation of 1930s Hollywood as if he’d never seen a vintage film, let alone directed one. Amsel could have taught Kazan a thing or two about real glamour.
John Wayne’s final movie: The Shootist. One dying legend playing another, framed by Amsel faces on a gold and sepia base. (From top left: Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brien, Ron Howard, Sheree North, Lauren Bacall and James Stewart.)
Amsel evokes Fin de siècle Vienna (and, again, Alfonese Mucha) in his original design for Nicholas Meyer’s marvelous Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. (From left: Nicol Williamson, Laurence, Olivier, Alan Arkin, Vanessa Redgrave.)
The final version omits the woman’s arm and Olivier’s Moriarty, retaining only his eyes, misterioso, and moves a luminous Redgrave to the top.
Amsel’s stunning design for Julia. Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman is central, but is dominated both by Jason Robards’ Dashiell Hammett and Vanessa Redgrave’s eponymous figure — less distinct, and idealized, as Julia is for Lillian.
Striking Amsel concept art for Martin Scorsese’s ill-fated (and somewhat ill-conceived) New York, New York. The final poster used photos of Robert DeNiro and Liza Minnelli.
Mitchum as Marlowe. Candy Clark clings, damsel-in-distress-like to Chandler’s iconoclastic private detective. A lousy movie (when you’ve seen Bogart and Bacall directed by Howard Hawks, why bother?) but a terrific Amsel design.
Death on the Nile. It’s a variation on Amsel’s own “Murder on the Orient Express” design, but then the movie —charming as it was — was a bit of a re-tread too. But what I wouldn’t give to see all of these actors alive and kicking again! (From top: Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, David Niven, Jack Warden, George Kennedy, Olivia Hussey. Mia Farrow, Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury.)
One of the reasons Stallone had to keep making Rocky and Rambo movies: His “big” brainchildren had an unfortunate tendency to flop, as this one did. That Felliniesque design does make you want to see the movie, though.
The completed Nijinsky design emphasizes the (so-called) love triangle, gives de la Peña sculpted pretty-boy/matinee-idol hair, and opts for a single dance: Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune.
Amsel invokes 1930s screwball comedy, as well as the Damon Runyan characters, for this forgotten 1980s remake. Sort of makes you want to shell out your $3.50 to see the movie, though, doesn’t it? Indeed, now that Matthau and Curtis are gone and Julie is an old lady, I can’t help wanting to see it, on a big screen.
The reissue poster: Nothing makes a man smile faster than a monster hit. Note Ford’s newly exposed chest and suggestive crotch-bulge.
Lily and Amsel, together again for The Incredible Shrinking Woman.
Amsel was commissioned, by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to create this gorgeous design for the restored, rereleased version of A Star is Born. The pose is from the movie (“Here comes a big, fat close-up!”) and was used in the original 1954 ad campaign. Amsel added the spotlights and a slight change in Garland’s costume. Compare this with the original; Amsel’s “Vicki Lester” adds a subtle sense of yearning.
Amsel captures an emblematic moment in American pop-culture for the laser-disc release pf The Seven Year Itch. An elegant presentation of what is in fact Billy Wilder’s only truly bad movie.
Amsel’s design for this Grahame Green adaptation (also known as Beyond the Limit—as though Green had written some sort of fast ‘80s kiss-kiss/bang-bang techno-thriller rather than a thoughtful examination of the cynical political murder of a minor functionary) incorporates a portrait of Michael Caine: The eyes of God, watching the lovers.
La Streisand, as Yentl.
Richard Amsel in the 1980s.
Most of these images, and much of the information, are from Adam McDaniel’s lovely Amsel site: http://adammcdaniel.com/RichardAmsel2.htm
Special thanks to Amsel’s friend Bob Esty for inspiring me to collect, and comment on, these magnificent works.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross