While her mother smothered her only child, the image of Greta Garbo promised liberation — most notably in Garbo’s
1936 film Camille, which ignited in the young Mell a career path. A brief film debut at 15 led her from
Graz to Vienna, where she enrolled in a four-year course at the Max Reinhardt drama school. A lifelong friend, Erika
Pluhar, recalled: “I’ve never seen such a beautiful girl. In the movies, maybe, but never so close and real... I
envied her haughty untouchability, this insurmountable aura of beauty.”
After a string of German films, Mell was introduced to a broader English-speaking audience in Ken Russell’s 1964
outing French Dressing, where a frumpy British seaside town is scandalised by the arrival of a European
starlet and her brazen ways. In one scene, she actually played a sexy nun. To save you the one hour and 26 minutes,
all you need to know is that it featured harrumphing lines such as, “Where will all of it end? Apache dancing in the
Floral Halls? Absinthe in the ice-cream parlours?”
Lavishly and rather obviously marketed as a brunette Brigitte Bardot, Mell’s notoriety rose to the extent that she
elevated the profile of any festival whose red carpet she strode. In 1963, for example, she was invited to a Buenos
Aires gathering where — in an act of either staggering naivety or unbounded self-belief in her own sex appeal — she
had a crack at seducing Psycho star Anthony Perkins. One of the very few openly gay actors in
But that was hardly the biggest event of her year. A car accident while shooting in France saw Mell almost lose her
eyesight and suffer severe disfigurement to her storied face. Two years of surgeries followed, and while many said
the repairs were unnoticeable, others swore blind that she emerged with the slightest of curls on her newly formed
upper lip. Those of the latter persuasion maintained that this chink in the symmetry made her both a little more
human and a lot more beautiful.
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