I've always considered Sue Lyon, best known as the star of Stanley Kubrick's controversial adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita" (1962) as one of the most underrated actresses of the 1960s. She's usually lumped in with the sort of blonde ingenues that Sandra Dee paved the way for throughout the decade, but she's ultimately much more than that. Sue Lyon had much more charisma and screen presence than Sandra Dee, was much less childlike than Yvette Mimieux, was much less whiny than Connie Stevens, and was much more talented and intelligent than the bland, vapid and vacuously stupid Carol Lynley. Even though Sue Lyon and Carol Lynley are continually tied to one another for having similarly-spelled surnames that ensures they will almost always be side-by-side in the index of movie reference books, and because they often competed for the same film roles, Lynley was nowhere as interesting an actress as Sue Lyon.
In fact, Lyon's only true peer in this category is the actress famously known for having turned down the role of Lolita, the gifted and equally underrated Tuesday Weld. However, Lyon strikes a contrast with even Weld in that she's much less malevolent, nihilistic and destructive on-screen than Weld often was in her film roles. Weld was brilliant and talented and was able to bring charm and depth to characters that were narcissistic, damaging, and shallow by-design. Weld could indeed play characters who were marked with sympathy and decency, but that wasn't her forte. In contrast, even though Sue Lyon's perceived screen image was, at times, that of a troubled "bad" girl (and she was effective during the times she actually played that sort of role on screen), in fact Lyon's strong suit as an actress was her ability to find the intelligence and, yes, unexpected aspects of decency and maturity in her characters that most people tend to overlook when discussing her characters.
A good example of this quality is demonstrated at the end of "Lolita" when Humbert Humbert, played by James Mason, has found Lolita after she has disappeared for several years. He urges Lyon's Lolita to abandon her hard-of-hearing and hapless husband Dick, played by a likeable Gary Cockrill, and run away with him, only to have Lolita refuse to do so because, as she explains to Humbert, "I've ruined too many things in my life. I can't do that to him. He needs me." As such, the audience realizes the one thing that Humbert hadn't expected and hadn't counted on--that Lolita might have actually learned from her mistakes and has developed the ability to care about somebody other than herself. Sue Lyon is impressive and touching in that scene, and pulls off that moment better than any of her blonde contemporaries, even the brilliant Tuesday Weld, would have because she demonstrates a quality of humility that they are incapable of. Lyon's range as an actress was much more than the young "nymphets" that the public perceived her to be. One of the best examples in Sue Lyon's career that demonstrated her ability to convincingly play characters that had courage and integrity was her role as missionary Emma Clark in John Ford's unusual, yet extremely satisfying, final film "7 Women" (1966).
Set in rural China in 1935, "7 Women" concerns itself with the women who operate a Christian missionary post as Mongol invaders terrorize the surrounding territories. Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton) is the severe, repressed head of the mission. Miss Argent (Mildred Dunnock) is her seemingly timid assistant. Charles Pether (Eddie Albert) is the foolish teacher at the missionary who waited until he was middle-aged before he finally married his long time sweetheart Florrie (Betty Field), who is now pregnant with their child. Emma Clark (Sue Lyon) is a young volunteer from a family of missionaries who Miss Argent secretly pines away for. The complacent life of these missionaries is turned upside down throughout the course of "7 Women" by a series of extraordinary developments. Dr. D.R. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft)--an unconventional, assertive physician who wears pants, smokes, drinks and does not subscribe to religion--arrives to serve as the missionary's physician. From the moment she enters the scene, Cartwright and Andrews clash over their different viewpoints on how the mission should be run. Andrews is perturbed that young Emma immediately takes a liking to Dr. Cartwright and looks up to this genuinely inspiring individual.
Eventually, the missionaries are joined by refugees from a British mission who fled in terror after they were attacked by ruthless Mongol bandit invader Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki) and his men. The refugees include Miss Binns (Flora Robson), the thoughtful head of the British mission; Mrs. Russell (Anna Lee), Binns' assistant; Miss Ling (Jane Chang), a Chinese member of the mission staff; as well as dozens of Chinese refugees. Not long after they arrive does Dr. Cartwright realize that the refugees have brought with them a strain of Cholera. Cartwright, Binns, and Emma work overtime in an effort to inoculate the inhabitants of the mission, with Emma falling ill to the disease. Andrews becomes alarmed over Emma's condition, until Cartwright successfully treats her. As the mission starts to regain a sense of calmness, Charles Pether notices fire and gunfire off in the distance and goes off to investigate, as the Chinese Army flees the area. When Pether's car returns and the car horn is honked, the gate is opened and Mongol invaders led by Tunga Khan take over the mission. The women learn that Charles had been killed by the Mongols while trying to protect a young girl who was being assaulted by them.
The women are rounded up and put into a shed as the Mongols pillage the mission. When the Chinese refugees are lined up and killed before a firing squad, Emma rushes out of the shed in an unsuccessful effort to save their lives. Florrie goes into labor and all the women, except for a prudish Andrews, assist Dr. Cartwright in helping her give birth to a baby boy. Cartwright strikes a bargain with Tunga Khan to become his concubine in exchange for food and medical supplies for the women. Eventually, with Emma's encouragement, Cartwright is able to negotiate the freedom for all the other women, except herself. Emma protests leaving Cartwright behind, which causes Cartwright to scold and urge her to leave with the others. As the women leave the missionary, Emma vows that she'll never forget Cartwright as long as she lives. Back at the missionary, Cartwright pours two drinks spiked with poison and serves one to Tunga Khan, who keels over dead after drinking it. Cartwright bitterly and triumphantly announces "So long, ya bastard!" as she drinks from the second cup as well.
A quirky and offbeat adventure drama atypical of director John Ford, "7 Women" is an underrated movie deserving of its cult status from movie buffs. It's energetically acted by a talented cast led by a brilliant Anne Bancroft (who deserved an Oscar nomination for her work in this film), has an engaging and thought-provoking screenplay by Janet Green and John McCormick, and lively direction by the legendary Ford. I don't consider "7 Women" a late career hiccup by Ford at all and admire his willingness to get outside his comfort zone to direct a movie considerably different from what he is known for. (In contrast to Howard Hawks, who simply served up "Rio Bravo" ad-nauseum at the end of his career by making the similar "El Dorado" in 1967 and "Rio Lobo" in 1970.) As I understand it, Sue Lyon was a casting choice urged upon Ford by MGM, with whom Lyon was under contract, as Ford had originally been considering Carol Lynley to play Emma. Ford agreed to the casting of Lyon in order to help ensure that MGM agreed to his other casting choices. Despite Ford biographer Joseph McBride's assertions that "Lyon's acting skills were limited" and that her "line readings were often clumsy, despite the extra rehearsal time the director devoted to her," I think Lyon gives a good performance as the naive Emma. At the very least, Lyon brings a lot more energy, charisma and commitment to the role than Carol Lynley, who would have probably dragged out and extended the running time of "7 Women" with her typically slow, distracted, somnambulistic line readings.
I think the reason I like Lyon in "7 Women" is because it's the first time in a movie where Lyon's character is not sexually objectified by the director. Lyon had great parts, and did terrific work, for directors Stanley Kubrick in "Lolita" and for John Huston in "The Night of the Iguana" (1964), but there's no doubt that both directors emphasized her good looks and playful personalities in both films in a way that exploited her to a certain extent. Despite the fact that Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton) clearly has a romantic attraction to Emma in the storyline, director Ford doesn't linger upon that aspect of the movie more than he needs to. As such, Ford respects Lyon's sense of modesty in ways that Kubrick and Huston didn't and this allows Lyon an opportunity to create a morally unambiguous character marked with strong traces of courage and integrity. In Lyon's hands, Emma comes across as a bright, if slightly naive, young woman, filled with caring and concern for those around her. Emma has a good relationship with the Chinese children that she helps to educate, and tries to comfort Florrie, whenever she becomes hysterical, that things will turn out all right. Unlike most roles offered to young 1960s starlets, Emma is an individual marked with strength, maturity and character, and Ford plays fair with her by presenting her character in a respectful manner.
I like how Emma does not blindly follow Andrews, even though she starts out in the story respecting the older missionary, and finds admirable qualities in Dr. Cartwright that allow her to broaden her perspective on the world. When Andrews expresses dismay at Emma's admiration in Cartwright, and announces that she plans to have her replaced at the earliest possible opportunity, Emma defends Cartwright and refutes Andrews' assertion that she is morally and spiritually bankrupt by declaring "No...Dr. Cartwright has come here to look after the sick, to take care of Mrs. Pether. She just can't be a bad woman. She's different." When Andrews continues attacking Cartwright and declares her to be evil, Emma again defends the doctor by saying "Evil? I can't believe it." Andrews tries to guilt-trip Emma by implying that her admiration of Cartwright is a betrayal of the time and effort Andrews has spent trying to mentor her and that it is an indication that she has lost her faith. Even though we see how Andrews has put Emma on the spot, Emma insists "Oh no! I...No, I haven't lost my faith. I didn't mean that. I haven't." Despite Andrews' manipulation, we eventually see in the course of the story that Emma does not blindly follow misguided leaders, and is an independent thinker who is smart enough to make her own judgments as to who or what is good in the world. Because she's someone who is able to make up her own mind as to what is important to her, Emma is a character with a bright future ahead of her, someone who will be an even more effective missionary than the uptight and close-minded Andrews.
As a result of Cartwright's earthy presence at the mission, Emma stops wearing her hair in the severe bun that Andrews insists of her and allows her hair to be worn in a more natural manner that allows her to express her femininity. Emma has learned that service to God does not mean she should, concurrently, shun other aspects of being a woman. Emma continues to demonstrate the courage of her convictions by assisting Cartwright in helping to inoculate the mission population from cholera, even though she herself falls ill to the communicable disease, and by rushing out of the shed, when she realizes the Chinese refugees are being lined up to be slaughtered by the Mongols in a firing squad, in an unsuccessful effort to save their lives. In both instances, Emma risks her life by putting her safety at risk in order to help the refugees that she has devoted her life to. She doesn't take them for granted as mere "sheep" the way Andrews does, but as human beings whose welfare she is genuinely concerned about. After witnessing the slaughter, an emotionally distraught Emma says, "Dr. Cartwright, now I know what Evil really is." Her naivete wiped clean from her consciousness, Emma now realizes how dangerous her work as a missionary truly is and won't have the sense of entitlement and arrogance that hindered Andrews, who foolishly believed that being an American inherently protected her and the others from the dangers of the outside world. If Emma chooses to continue her work as a missionary, she will know how to avoid walking into traps the way Andrews has by recognizing how to protect herself and those around her.
Throughout the remainder of "7 Women," Emma continues to demonstrate her ability to roll up her sleeves to do what needs to be done for the greater good of all. When Florrie goes into labor, and all the women (except Andrews) rise to the occasion to help her, Emma asks Cartwright what she can do to assist. Cartwright tells Emma to get Florrie a stick that she can bite on while she is in labor. Emma immediately grabs a stick, snaps it into smaller pieces by breaking it on her knee, and brings it over to Florrie for her to bite on. After Florrie's son is born, Emma actively participates in caring for the child and assists in his feeding. We see how Emma has a maternal maturity about her that belies her youth. When Andrews expresses disgust for Cartwright's sacrifice in becoming Tunga Khan's concubine, and complains about the baby, Emma finally gets fed up with the whiny Andrews and tells her, "Oh stop it! Whatever the doctor's doing, she's doing for our good! You should be thankful!" In so doing, she has finally put Andrews in her place and begins to shatter her "holier-than-thou" delusions about herself and the world around her.
Despite her youthful naivete, Emma remains a realist who can handle what life has thrown her way. Emma is the one who helps suggest to Dr. Cartwright that she can use her position as Tunga Khan's concubine to negotiate the women's release. Cartwright smiles and admires Emma's shrewd pragmatism at recognizing the bargaining position that Cartwright is in and tells her, "You're a good kid, Emma." However, even Emma couldn't foresee that Cartwright's success at negotiating the women's release would result in Cartwright further sacrificing herself by being left behind to face an uncertain future with Tunga Khan. Emma asks Cartwright, "What are you?...Why are you staying here? Why aren't you going to come with us?" only to have Cartwright scold her into leaving by telling her "Beat it!" As the women are wheeled away in an oxen-drawn cart, Emma looks back at Cartwright and declares with admiration, "Dr. Cartwright...I'll never forget her as long as I live."
Similarly, anyone who has ever seen Sue Lyon's work as an actress isn't likely to ever forget her either. If she did nothing else as an actress, Lyon's work in Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita" would, and indeed has, cemented her place in film history forever. However, Lyon followed up her brilliant work for Kubrick with equally fine work for John Huston, in the aforementioned "The Night of the Iguana" and with John Ford in "7 Women." In a short period of time, Lyon starred in leading roles with three of the finest directors in cinema history in three excellent movies. As such, even though Sue Lyon's career was much shorter, much less prolific, and marked with probably more bumps in the road than Sandra Dee, Carol Lynley, Yvette Mimieux, and Connie Stevens, I think her career was in the long run much more rewarding because they never reached the heights of achieving brilliance the way Lyon did. In some respects, Lyon eclipses even Tuesday Weld (who I greatly admire) because her trio of brilliance is more impressive than even the interesting and offbeat films that were the highlights of Weld's idiosyncratic career.
Later in the 1970s, Lyon's career struggled as she made appearances in B-pictures and on television that didn't take full advantage of the earthy intelligence and vitality that she had to offer. Her last good movie was as the female lead in the bio-pic "Evel Knievel" (1971) with George Hamilton. But, even within the limited framework offered to her, Lyon's star quality as an actress continued to shine brightly. She was particularly good in a 1969 "Love American Style" episode entitled "Love and the Bed" where she and Roger Perry play neighbors in an apartment house who argue over ownership of a elegant brass bed being thrown out by another neighbor moving out of the building. Even though it was a light-weight vignette, Lyon brought insouciant wit and maturity to the skit that allowed it to rank among the better segments of that series. I also remember her charming performance in the TV movie "But I Don't Want to Get Married!" (1970), as one of the many women attracted to recently widowed, middle-aged Herschel Bernardi. In casting that was clearly meant to draw parallels with her famous role as Lolita, Lyon's character is very attracted to Bernardi's kindness and maturity as a gentleman. She tells Bernardi's character, "You're a nice guy. There aren't too many around. And I like you. Aren't those enough reasons?...Listen, I'm a big girl now. I know what I want."
In contrast to James Mason and Richard Burton before him, Bernardi tells Lyon's character, "I'm a grown man and I know what I can't have." Defeated, Lyon graciously accepts Bernardi's invitation to buy her a hot chocolate at a nearby drugstore and jokes "All right, I guess a hot chocolate's better than nothing!" Clearly, Lyon's characters continually mature and progress beyond one's expectations. I also remember her for her touching performance in an episode of "Fantasy Island" in 1978. She played a spoiled rich girl who pays Mr. Roarke to recreate the best summer of her life when she was still in high school and spent it with her four girlfriends from school. Michele Lee, Pamela Franklin, and Hilarie Thompson played her classmates. In Lyon's most affecting moment, she reveals to the others how she is not as rich as they remember her to be, that she had to get a job and save up money for this fantasy, and that she simply wanted one more chance to relive her youth before ultimately facing reality.
In so doing, Lyon's characters continually demonstrate how they are more self-aware about the realities of their lives than the ones played by other blonde 1960s starlets. Her comparatively deeper, mature voice, vibrant intelligence, and forthright directness was a refreshing contrast to the frivolity and coyness expressed by her counterparts in their roles. Lyon faced her share of career struggles while in Hollywood, but there is no other role that demonstrates her qualities of courage and integrity better than her performance as Christian missionary Emma Clark in John Ford's "7 Women." Ford doesn't objectify her on screen and allows Lyon's assertive qualities as an actress to be fully explored. Lyon has great chemistry throughout the movie with her formidable co-stars, particularly with Anne Bancroft and Margaret Leighton, and more than holds her own amidst such powerhouse performers. It's a shame that "7 Women" wasn't a bigger success for all involved so that the public and Hollywood didn't perceive that John Ford was losing his touch as a director and so that Sue Lyon could have had a shot at playing more mature and dignified roles in her career. Sue Lyon's stardom in Hollywood may have been shorter than it should have been, but her fine work for John Ford in "7 Women" demonstrates the extent to which her star, at its peak, did indeed truly shine bright.