Thursday, August 11, 2005

Lost Starlets of the '60s

I see that 20th Century Fox is doing a couple of "double feature" DVDs of Rodgers and Hammerstein movies: the long-awaited set of both the CinemaScope and Todd-AO versions of Oklahoma!, and the 1945 and 1962 versions of State Fair.

The 1945 State Fair always struck me as a mediocre musical -- both in script and score -- that wouldn't have endured if the names Rodgers and Hammerstein weren't affixed to it; the original nonmusical version has a better cast and director. The 1962 version, while basically terrible -- another example the kind of family-friendly yet weirdly smutty pap that Charles Brackett produced after splitting with Billy Wilder and became active in the Republican party, not necessarily in that order. Yet I actually enjoy it more than the 1945, mostly because it features early roles for two actresses who should have become big stars but didn't: Ann-Margret and Pamela Tiffin.

The '60s were a very bad time for women's roles in Hollywood movies (European movies took up the slack, though, unlike today, when there just don't seem to be any good women's roles anywhere). The result was that there were a lot of American actresses who might have become headliners in a previous era who instead wound up being used mostly as decoration, because that's basically all women were in most movies in the '60s and '70s.

Ann-Margret became famous, yes, based on a movie where she played second fiddle to Elvis and a lot of TV specials. But she hardly ever headlined a movie; she just missed the golden age of movie musicals, and most directors other than the cheerfully insane Freed Unit veteran George Sidney didn't know what to do with her.

Pamela Tiffin was gorgeous, instantly likable, and a talented performer; in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three she holds her own with James Cagney while Horst Buchholz kind of embarrasses himself. Yet Buchholz got to play some leading roles in movies, both in America and Europe, and Tiffin never got to do much more than dance in a bikini in Harper (though that alone makes her the best thing in that movie). Say what you will about the movie industry of the '30s and '40s, it had a lot more leading roles for women who were attractive and funny -- think Carole Lombard or Claudette Colbert. I'm not saying Pamela Tiffin was in the league of Colbert or Lombard, but she may have had the potential to be; we'll never know, because there just weren't any interesting roles for her.

Angie Dickinson is another actress who joins Ann-Margret in the category of somewhat-famous performers who could have been really famous. After her scene-stealing in Rio Bravo there was no reason why she shouldn't have graduated to starring roles. Instead she graduated to a bunch of decoration roles, including one of the most thankless female roles ever, the token woman in Ocean's Eleven. (What, I wonder, does it feel like to be the only female character in a movie where Dean Martin suggests taking the vote away from women?) She did get a couple of lead roles, but even those were thankless; The Sins of Rachel Cade was a melodramatic potboiler that didn't use the sense of humor that made her so appealing in Rio Bravo, and Jessica was another one of those smutty "family" films of the early '60s, where the story of an entire town leering at the scantily-clad heroine is somehow portrayed as wholesome, bland fun. By the late '60s she was mostly doing movies where she either stripped or got beaten up or both; that's what happened to her in Point Blank, which is a great movie but, like most of the great movies of the era, one in which women are superfluous.

Paula Prentiss is probably number one on the list of '60s starlets who should have been stars; Hawks's Man's Favorite Sport? may be slow and (like everything Hawks did after Rio Bravo) a re-hash of his earlier, better work, but Prentiss is hilarious. She doesn't just hold her own with the original, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, she's arguably better -- more able to convince us that she is, in fact, a real and likable person no matter what horrible things she does to the hero. (And she completely blows away Barbra Streisand in the next decade's Bringing Up Baby ripoff, What's Up, Doc?.) But the rest of her movie career in the '60s was spent, once again, as decoration in guy-oriented flicks. She had a better role on TV in He and She, a Dick Van Dyke Show-style comedy where she was even funnier than Mary Tyler Moore had been. But that show was cancelled after a season. (I should add that women had somewhat better luck on TV in the '60s than they did in movies; there weren't a lot of good women's roles even on TV, but the medium did provide opportunities for actresses who had never gotten the stardom they deserved in movies, like Anne Francis.)

There are others; those are just the four that always come to mind. The American movie industry in the '60s and '70s must have had actresses who had the potential to be the new Colbert or Hepburn (either one) or Davis, or for that matter the equivalents of the big European female stars of the time -- Moreau, Deneuve, Ullmann. We'll never know for sure who would have become the great female stars of the era if Hollywood hadn't overdosed on testosterone.

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