Sunday, February 9, 2014

I Still Pick Ginger


I've been on the losing side of a popular culture question for the last 20 or so years (and I don't care).  Whenever people ask "Ginger or Mary Ann," in terms of who they prefer from the 1960s sitcom "Gilligan's Island," the answer has usually been Mary Ann.  The reasons given is that these people consider her more natural, more down-to-earth, more pleasant, less self-centered, and more accessible.  It helps that Dawn Wells, the actress who plays Mary Ann, continually fuels the debate by discussing the series at more length than does the actress who played Ginger on the series, Tina Louise.  Louise, as I've written about before, has sometimes been her worst enemy by her efforts to distance herself from the show, such as turning down the reunion TV movies that were made in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and by giving pat answers whenever she is asked about the show in interviews.  Louise often says, in response to questions asking her what it was like working on the series, "Oh, it was fun.  I had a lot of fun."  Louise's inability to be more detailed and articulate about her memories of working on the show helps fuel the resentment people feel towards her because it comes across as condescending and elitist that she can't be more embracing and appreciative of the series she is still best known for.  That being said, however, I still pick Ginger over Mary Ann.


I've admitted in the past on this blog that Tina Louise is my favorite actress, that I appreciate her overall career and range as an actress, and that she has done enough interesting work in films and television (and has worked with directors as diverse as Anthony Mann, Michael Curtiz, Andre de Toth, Roberto Rossellini, Richard Brooks, and Robert Altman) that "Gilligan's Island" should be considered the most high-profile credit out of a long and eclectic career, but it's not the only thing she has appeared in.  That being said, I also recognize her shortcomings as an individual, especially having dealt with her several times back in the 1990s in the course of interviewing her about her career for a book project about 1960s-era actresses.  Even though, overall, I liked her, Louise was a bit defensive at times, could objectively be described as "high maintenance," and didn't hesitate to let her perspectives and opinions be known.  That being said, she was also exceedingly bright and witty and insightful about her career, her colleagues, and about issues and current events that interested and concerned her.  (I recall how she spoke highly about Jim Backus, Alan Hale and Natalie Schafer, how she liked Dawn Wells and wouldn't allow any criticism to be made about her, how she wished Bob Denver would stop criticizing her but that she held no personal animosity towards him because she respected his talents, and how Russell Johnson was a loving and devoted parent and how devastated he was when his son died from AIDS.)  She didn't make things easy, but she was ultimately cooperative in the end and she never intentionally messed with me or played games with me.  She simply wants to be an active participant in the creative process of anything she's involved in.


The other thing I realized about Tina Louise is that it isn't that she necessarily dislikes talking about "Gilligan's Island," because I found that she wasn't exactly dying to talk about her other film and TV roles.  I presumed incorrectly that she would brighten up at being asked about "God's Little Acre" or "The Stepford Wives" or "Dallas" and I found that she wasn't any more enthusiastic talking about those projects than she was talking about "Gilligan's Island."  I ultimately concluded that she doesn't want to spend her entire life talking only about the past, because she prefers to focus on the present.  I recall how she said that she believes that the best time of your life is right now, and not the past.  As such, she doesn't want to spend her life dwelling on events from decades ago, which is one reason why, she admitted to me, she rarely grants interviews.  I can see why this would turn people off to her, because there were times she frustrated me, but at the end of the day I do feel she's an intelligent and good person.  I acknowledge that there are those whose experiences with Louise may have been different than mine, and who would beg to differ with my opinion, and I grant them that perspective.  However, what makes me respect her in the end was that I found that she was a woman of her word.  In my opinion, if she agrees to help you, she helps you all the way, but that doesn't mean it's going to be easy.


Having dealt with her made me realize the extent to which her iconic performance as movie star Ginger Grant was miles away from who Tina Louise actually is as an individual.  There's an understandable assumption that Louise was simply "playing herself" when she played Ginger on the series.  But I've found that anyone who has actually dealt with, or worked with, Tina Louise recognizes that that was a genuine acting performance and not just an instance of an actor phoning it in.  Growing up as a kid, I always enjoyed Louise as Ginger.  Ginger wasn't deep, was consumed with herself and her career, spent far too much time gazing in the mirror concerned about her appearance, and rarely expressed interest in anything besides show business.  At the same time, she also turned out to be friendly and loyal to the other castaways, participated in the domestic chores around the island as much as Mary Ann did, and was willing to do whatever needed to be done to help get the castaways rescued, or to help save them from unfriendly visitors who were threatening her safety and the safety of her friends.  The character of Ginger Grant had good and bad qualities of superficiality and self-absorption mixed with moments of kindness and sincerity.  Despite the cartoonish framework of the series, Ginger Grant still comes across as a human being because the good and the bad, as I just mentioned, are all there, are all on display, and maybe it's because she isn't all good or all bad that the character evokes such a divisive reaction from people.


While I was growing up, even though I definitely preferred Ginger over Mary Ann because she was more colorful and vibrant, I never had anything against Dawn Wells or Mary Ann.  In fact, upon viewing episodes of "Gilligan's Island" again in order to write this article, I was reminded of how appealing and radiant Wells was as Mary Ann.  I really haven't watched the show much in the last 20 years--I had reached a saturation point where I was so familiar with it that I started feeling contemptuous towards it--but watching the series with fresh eyes allows me to appreciate how skillfully made the show was, and how good all the actors were on it.  It's really too bad that there has to be a "Ginger vs. Mary Ann" debate because, on-screen, the whole cast worked well together as a cohesive whole.  I think "Gilligan's Island" wouldn't have worked if only Tina Louise as Ginger, or only Dawn Wells as Mary Ann, were on it to the exclusion of the other individual because their combined presence complemented one another beautifully.  In fact, I never really liked the whole "Ginger vs. Mary Ann" debate because I thought it was dumb and divisive.  Even though I preferred Ginger, having such a debate inherently suggests that you can't like both and that you have to pick one at the expense of the other.  Just to be clear, if I say I pick Ginger, it doesn't mean to suggest that I don't like Mary Ann or Dawn Wells' effective performance as the character.  I just find Ginger a more interesting personality.


When I read articles written by men expressing why they prefer Mary Ann over Ginger, it's usually because they cite her domestic qualities, and her generally compliant and submissive nature.  In fact, one recent article that compares Ginger vs. Mary Ann, written in the wake of Russell Johnson's death, really incensed me because of the underlying sexism and condescension of the writer, who can't distinguish between Tina Louise and the character of Ginger, and often writes dismissively of the two of them as if they were one and the same.  (I'm not hyperlinking to that piece, as I normally would, because I don't want to direct more traffic to that guy's article.)  In the provincial mentality of such passive and wimpy misogynists, Mary Ann doesn't threaten or challenge their sensibilities, whereas the character of Ginger does.  I remember the first article I ever read written by a guy who preferred Mary Ann generally cited the notion that he felt Ginger was too self-absorbed to ever be concerned about his needs and wants.  I got the distinct impression that he preferred Mary Ann because he felt she would be someone who would generally be at his beck and call.  If anything, I would wager that the purportedly earthy Mary Ann is even more of an unrealistic fantasy figure than the glamorous, mercurial Ginger.  Even if they tried, it's not likely that any man would be able to find an individual who is as compliant, complacent, submissive, and subservient as Mary Ann was.  As such, I'm not sure why some people have such an extreme perspective on Ginger.  I think her character is a kind of a Rorschach Test of people's perceptions and opinions about women.  People react differently to her based on their own experiences and sensibilities.  Even though she definitely is consumed with her career and physical appearance, as I mentioned before she participates equally in the domestic chores as Mary Ann does and, as I also highlighted, actively participates in any efforts to perpetuate a rescue, save her friends, or help maintain peace and status quo on the island.  I think the men who don't like Ginger simply don't have the self-confidence or maturity to deal with a woman with complexity. 


In the episode "Diamonds are an Ape's Best Friend," which aired February 27, 1965, after being persuaded by Mr. Howell with promises that he'll produce a movie with her as the star (and after Mary Ann flat out refused to help) Ginger tries to tempt a gorilla, who has been holding Mrs. Howell hostage, out of his cave so that the men can capture him.  In the episode "The Matchmaker," which aired March 20, 1965, Ginger helps Gilligan and the Skipper develop a plan to reunite the bickering Howells by recreating the circumstances of the night Mr. Howell proposed marriage to Mrs. Howell.  In "Quick Before it Sinks," which aired October 28, 1965, when the castaways are under the assumption that the island is sinking, Ginger suggests building an Ark like Noah did so that the castaways can survive.  In "Erika Tiffany Smith to the Rescue," which aired December 30, 1965, Ginger gives both the Skipper and the Professor advice on how to woo and romance a wealthy heiress (Zsa Zsa Gabor) who has landed on the island.  (In contrast, when the Professor expresses concern to Mary Ann, after Erika Tiffany Smith accepts his marriage proposal, as to whether they will end up living in his academic, or her high society, world all Mary Ann can do is patly remark, "Gee, it would be nice if you both would live in the same one!")  In "Ship Ahoax," which aired February 24, 1966, Ginger pretends to be a psychic predicting that a rescue is imminent in order to help prevent the castaways from going crazy and fighting with one another out of boredom and anxiety.  In "The Postman Cometh," which aired January 20, 1966, after the castaways get word that a man they believe Mary Ann is in love with has gotten married to another woman, Ginger suggests that Gilligan, the Skipper and the Professor romance Mary Ann to help her forget her sweetheart and, as such, personally gives the Professor tips on how to woo Mary Ann by acting like Cary Grant.  In "Love Me, Love My Skipper," which aired February 3, 1966, after the castaways inadvertently cause the Howells to bicker and break up by refusing invitations to attend their cotillion when they mistakenly believe the Howells refused to invite the Skipper, Ginger concocts a scheme using gentle manipulation and subterfuge to help reunite them.  In "Forward March," which aired February 17, 1966, when the castaways are attacked by unseen aggressors using explosive weaponry, Ginger immediately volunteers to act as a spy by approaching the men and announcing "Mata Hari reporting for duty."  When the Professor dismisses Ginger's offer of assistance by condescendingly informing her, "This is neither the time nor the place for a woman," Ginger retorts, "Forget that I'm a woman.  I'm a secret agent trying to capture the enemy." 


In "Mr. and Mrs. ???," which aired April 21, 1966, when the Howells learn that their marriage may not have been legal, Ginger suggests that the Skipper, being the de-facto legal authority on the island, should remarry them.  Later in the episode, when the Howells bicker and refuse to reconcile, Ginger convinces Mr. Howell that the way to win back Mrs. Howell's affections is to make her jealous.  In "Voodoo," which aired October 10, 1966, Ginger offers to perform a native dance in the hope that it will lift the curse that a witch doctor has placed on the Professor that has turned him into a zombie.  In "Court-Martial," which aired January 9, 1967, when the Skipper attempts to commit suicide after learning that the Maritime Board has ruled he is responsible for the shipwreck, both Ginger and, later, Mary Ann save the Skipper's life by preventing him from committing suicide by throwing himself off a cliff.  Later, Ginger suggests reenacting the shipwreck in an effort to gather evidence to exonerate him.  In "The Hunter," which aired January 16, 1967, Ginger attempts to seduce and drug big game hunter Jonathan Kincaid (Rory Calhoun) with a tranquilizer in order to try and steal his rifle so that he won't hunt Gilligan for sport.  In "The Second Ginger Grant," which aired March 6, 1967, after Mary Ann has hit her head and wakes up believing she's Ginger, the real Ginger pretends she is Mary Ann for awhile in order to allow the real Mary Ann time to snap out of her delusional fantasy.  In "Slave Girl," which aired March 20, 1967, Ginger performs an elaborate dance with veils in an attempt to buy Gilligan enough time to sleep off a drug which has left him in a death-like trance before natives can set fire to his body as part of their funeral rite.  In "Bang! Bang! Bang!," which aired April 10, 1967, Ginger stands in as a dental assistant while the Professor fills Gilligan's teeth with a resin made of plastic explosives.  Later, upon realizing the explosive nature of the plastics that Gilligan has found, she continues assisting the Professor in trying to extract the deadly material out of Gilligan's teeth.


These are just a few examples, but I think they demonstrate how Ginger was indeed a "team player" on the island and how she doesn't deserve her reputation as someone self-centered and uncooperative.  She contributes to the well-being of herself and the other castaways on the island as much as Mary Ann does.  There's a perception that Mary Ann does the chores on the island without ever complaining, but in the episode "Not Guilty," which aired January 6, 1966, Mary Ann openly complains about having to clean the Howell's hut.  As she whines to Ginger, "Oh Ginger, I don't see why we have to make up the Howell's hut everyday," Ginger responds, "Oh, we don't have to, Mary Ann.  But I like be helpful and thoughtful and considerate.  I mean, after all when we get off the island, Mr. Howell owns a movie studio!"  Even though one might argue that Ginger is only selfishly doing chores because of what she might eventually get out of it, I prefer the fact that she isn't anyone's Trilby or slave and actually expects something in return for her efforts.  Mary Ann's complacency and complaining over cleaning the Howell's hut is less appealing to me because it demonstrates her submissiveness and how she doesn't take proactive measures on the island to protect herself and the others, or even protect her own self interests.  If she were more assertive, she'd complain to the Howells and refuse to clean their hut, instead of allowing herself to be a martyr.  As much as I like Mary Ann, and think that Dawn Wells makes her a sympathetic character, Mary Ann is a character who rarely has the imagination to think outside the box or does much outside her domestic duties and chores on the island.


In contrast, I always felt that Ginger was someone who was willing and able to do what was necessary for the good of the others.  The examples I just cited from various episodes help to affirm that.  I also like the way Ginger often makes suggestions to the castaways on how to resolve the immediate crisis based on plots of movies she has starred in.  It might seem a limited perspective for her to make suggestions based on her movies, but I think it demonstrates how Ginger is simply applying her own life experience and skills to help everyone surmount the challenges they are facing.  The fact that she might occasionally act in a selfish or self-centered manner does not undermine her positive traits.  Like the Howells, Ginger has her flaws, but her good qualities overshadow her shortcomings.  Nevertheless, I like the fact that, in a show set in the 1960s, when the Women's Movement hadn't yet taken shape, Ginger has a strong sense of her own needs and desires as a worldly career woman, but is also still capable of executing practical duties and chores when necessary for the good of the whole community.  Interestingly in Joey Green's excellent 1988 book "The Unofficial Gilligan's Island Handbook," co-star Jim Backus opines, in response to the question as to who was the leader on the island, that Ginger was the one who was really running the show.  Backus refers to how a person like Ginger, who came from Hollywood and Broadway, would naturally have to develop survival instincts and figure a way out of difficult situations.  Whether or not you agree with Backus, this demonstrates that at least one major participant in the series saw Ginger in a substantive light.


There are people who don't like Ginger and think of her as being promiscuous and a "bimbo," but I always disagreed with that because I don't think she gives herself away easily to just any man.  There's a certain misogyny that suggests that any woman who is sexually confident, or is clearly a sexual individual, is inherently shallow and superficial and I have never bought into that theory.  It's such a prudish and puritanical perspective.  If Ginger is seen trying to seduce someone on the show, as I mentioned before, it's usually to help herself or her fellow castaways achieve their goals.  Her sexual identity as a femme fatale affirms that she's not primarily concerned about sexually pleasing the men she seduces so much as pleasing herself, or gaining what she needs.  Yet, at the same time, I get the impression that Ginger has had enough experience with men that she knows how to handle herself so that she never gets victimized, nor do I ever get the impression that she ever unwittingly puts herself in a situation where she could be taken advantage of.  I always got the feeling that Ginger knew how to take care of herself.  Having a worldly, sexually confident and arguably assertive female character on television in the 1960s was kind of daring and impressive for that time.  I would make the argument that Ginger is the sort of glamorous and sexually confident woman that Camille Paglia would feel exemplifies her theory of "pro-sex feminism," a woman who doesn't feel she has to forgo her sex appeal in order to make an impact in the world.  It's one of the reasons why Ginger has always intrigued me more than the complacent and compliant Mary Ann.  I wish Mary Ann would have taken a more proactive role on the show and on the island.  A telling moment from Mary Ann takes place during "The Hunter" episode.  While Jonathan Kincaid is busy hunting Gilligan, the other castaways are held captive in a cave.  As the others try to think of ways to help Gilligan, and after Ginger tried to drug Kincaid the night before, Mary Ann tellingly says "Oh I can't just sit still!  I've never felt so useless in my entire life!"  Mary Ann wants to help, but her imagination is rarely broad enough to allow her to proactively develop a solution to the situation.


Another assumption that people have about Ginger is that they believe she isn't very bright and only has a limited knowledge of the world based on what she has experienced in show business.  This is partly due to the fact that Tina Louise herself has said that the original concept of Ginger was as a sardonic, Eve Arden-ish character and that she helped influence the character to be more Marilyn Monroe/Lucille Ball-like in the end.  As such, the perception is that Louise always played the role with a breathy, breathless diction and delivery, inspired by Marilyn Monroe, which demonstrated a lack of intelligence or substance on the part of the character.  Creator and Producer Sherwood Schwartz himself said that he felt that Tina Louise "couldn't" play the original concept of Ginger in a wise and sardonic manner and I disagree.  Watching the episodes again, it's only part of the time that Tina Louise truly resorts to playing Ginger in a breathy, Monroe-ish, sex-kittenish manner.  The moments when she resorts to playing her as such include episodes like "All About Eva," which aired December 12, 1966, where a mousy woman comes on the island in order to get away from all men.  The castaways perform a makeover on her and she turns out to be a Ginger look-alike.  In this episode, Louise affects the Monroe-ish breathy delivery with more emphasis than usual in order to strike more of a contrast with the bitter, hardened Eva Grubb lookalike character.  Otherwise, Louise, more often than I remembered, plays Ginger using a deeper than expected speaking voice that is closer to her regular speaking voice than people expect it to be, and proves how, at times, Ginger still had that Eve Arden-like wit and wisdom expressing a wry view of the circumstances surrounding her.


In "Castaway Pictures Presents," which aired November 6, 1965, while the castaways are trying to make a silent movie that they hope to send on a raft to the mainland in the hope someone will see it and rescue them, Mr. Howell directs the Professor and Ginger in a love scene.  When the Professor refuses to kiss Ginger because "Kissing on the mouth is far from sanitary, it can lead to all sorts of bacterial transfer," an annoyed Ginger retorts, "You certainly make a kiss sound romantic, like germ warfare!"  In "Don't Bug the Mosquitos," which aired December 9, 1965, when Gilligan asks Ginger how was the rock band he and the men put together, Ginger wryly remarks, "Gilligan, that act couldn't get booked on Devil's Island."  In the aforementioned "Erica Tiffany Smith to the Rescue," when the Skipper seeks romantic advice from Ginger and prefaces by stating, "Ginger, I've got a problem, I've got a real problem.  I mean, you're a girl, right?," a non-plussed Ginger responds with "Well, if you're not sure about that, you have got a problem."  When the Skipper tells Ginger that he's brought Erica a fan, some water, and a chair, as well as taken her for a walk, and asks Ginger, how he's doing so far to woo Mrs. Tiffany Smith, Ginger sagely comments, "Perfect, if you want a job as her butler."  Later, in the same episode, when Ginger is offering romantic lessons to the Professor, and he gives her a passionless kiss on the lips, a deflated Ginger opines, "That wouldn't have even satisfied your mother!"  In "The Postman Cometh," while Ginger gives the Professor tips on how to woo Mary Ann by pretending to be Cary Grant, after the Professor fails to muster up enough charm he self-deprecatingly remarks, "Oh, that wasn't much like Cary Grant, was it?" to which Ginger sardonically replies, "That wasn't even much like General Grant!"  In the aforementioned "The Hunter" episode, while the tense castaways express concern for Gilligan's safety, Mary Ann reminds the others not to give up hope and to believe that Gilligan's still alive and will stay that way, a sanguine Ginger opines, "You're not Mary Ann, you're Mary Poppins!"  In the aforementioned "Bang! Bang! Bang!," after the castaways learn that the plastic that the Professor used to fill Gilligan's teeth are explosive, Mary Ann tells Ginger that she's prepared a special meal for him to eat where he doesn't have to chew hard.  Ginger reminds Mary Ann that, "Yeah, but what you give him the simplest meal can mean a big blow-out!"


Despite suggestions to the contrary, I think Ginger does prove to be at times a sardonic, wry, and witty Eve Arden type of character and not just a vacuous Marilyn Monroe parody.  Louise delivers these lines with almost the same aplomb as Arden herself.  In the end, due to the contributions of both Tina Louise, as well as the writers, producers and directors of the show, Ginger Grant does indeed prove to be a combination of Eve Arden's wit, Marilyn Monroe's sex appeal, and Lucille Ball's comedic physical comedy and timing.  The reason why the actresses who replaced Tina Louise in the various reunion TV movies often came off as a pale imitation is that they generally only focused on the Marilyn Monroe aspect of the character and disregarded the Arden and Ball qualities that Louise invested in the role.  Because Ginger has more aspects to her personality than is often given credit, I think she is also more self-aware than people expect her to be.  In the first season episode "X Marks the Spot," which aired January 30, 1965, the castaways face imminent danger after learning that the United States Air Force has targeted their island to test a new missile.  As they await their presumed fate, the Professor stumbles across a self-reflective Ginger sitting by herself and contemplating the regrets she has about her life.  In probably her most serious scene on the series, Ginger tells the Professor, "I was just thinking what a waste my life's been.  I mean, so I was an actress?  So what?  I never really did anything for anyone."  The Professor attempts to reassure Ginger by reminding her that "you entertained people."  But Ginger dismisses that example by stating, "Oh, that was just for the moment.  I mean, really do something important.  Like being a nurse.  Although, I was a nurse.  For one day, I was Ben Casey's nurse.  And you know something, Professor?  In that one hour, we saved six people!  And if it hadn't been for the commercials, we would've saved eight!"  In this scene, Ginger acknowledges her short comings as an individual and recognizes places where she can improve.  Over the course of the series, however, she does redeem herself by rising to the occasion when needed and helping her fellow castaways.


In watching the show again, another misconception that people may have about the series is that the role of Ginger Grant rarely allowed Tina Louise an opportunity to challenge herself as an actress.  Louise herself has perpetuated that notion due to her comments through the years about how the show, and the character, proved to be limiting and one-dimensional.  In response, people who don't know about the diversity of Tina Louise's career, and who resent her complaining about the series, try to demean her by stating that the series was the sum and whole of her entire career.  Anyone who has glanced at her credits on IMDB or her Broadway roles in IBDB can clearly see that Tina Louise enjoyed a long and prolific career, with some bumps along the way, but that she nevertheless still had opportunities to play meaty and challenging roles.  In fact, one of the things Louise told me that she feels people have gotten wrong about her is that she feels resentful that she didn't get to have a diverse career.  When I spoke with her, she expressed the opinion that she did have a good career, one that she is proud of, and that as an actress she did indeed feel fulfilled even if she might have complained about the "Gilligan's Island" typecasting in interviews.  However, watching the show again after all these years, I think the truth about Tina Louise with regards to the series is somewhere in the middle and somewhat more complex.  It wasn't the only good part she ever got, despite what her detractors may claim, but it also wasn't the limiting role that Louise herself occasionally alleges.  One would never know from just her work on-screen that Louise was ever unhappy or dissatisfied with appearing on the series, because of the joy and happiness she brought to the role in every episode.  (As a point of contrast, check out Robert Foxworth's work on "Falcon Crest."  I know it's apples and oranges comparing the two performances on the two shows but, even though Foxworth's Chase Gioberti is supposed to be the "hero" of "Falcon Crest," the audience rarely feels sympathy for him because it becomes apparent after awhile that Foxworth is unable to hide his contempt for both the character and the show in his performance.  He always seems irritated on-screen, whereas Tina Louise's performance as Ginger on "Gilligan's Island" never betrays a hint of the mixed feelings she had for the show and the character.)


Actually, when viewing the 98 episodes of the series as a whole, the Ginger Grant role on "Gilligan's Island" allowed Tina Louise an opportunity to sing, dance and act in both comedic and occasionally dramatic vignettes.  She got to play mousey, bitter characters like Eva Grubb, or the shrill, nasty, evil stepsister in Mrs. Howell's Cinderella dream fantasy in the "Lovey's Secret Admirer" episode from January 23, 1967.  She got to play elderly, physically frail women in the dream sequences of both "V for Vitamins," which aired April 14, 1967, as well as "Meet the Meteor," which aired April 28, 1967.  In the classic "The Producer" episode from October 6, 1966, Tina Louise got to play an Italian peasant woman, Marilyn Monroe, and Ophelia during the episode's famous musical version of "Hamlet."  In "Up at Bat," which aired September 12, 1966, Louise got to play a sinister female vampire during Gilligan's dream sequence where he believes he has become a vampire.  Even playing just plain Ginger Grant herself, Louise had opportunities to shine.  She's particularly good in "Angel on the Island," which aired December 12, 1964, and the aforementioned "The Producer" episode, where she expresses Ginger's sadness and dismay at being marooned on the island while her life and career passes her by.  In the latter episode, Ginger explains to Gilligan and the Skipper that she won't return to the mainland because she was insulted by producer Harold Hecuba (Phil Silvers) when she tried to impress him with her acting, "I asked him for a part in his movie, and he laughed at me."  When the Skipper tries to persuade her that she doesn't need Hecuba and that she'll return to an adoring public who hasn't forgotten her, she responds, "No, I'll return to find that I'm an unknown!  A has-been!  I'm going to spend the rest of my life alone on this island!"  In so doing, Ginger proves to be the one character who acknowledges the emotional toll that being shipwrecked on the island has had upon her.  While it might not have been the type of role or project that Louise may have wanted at the time, in the end it actually allowed her to do more than people often realize or acknowledge. 


I think the reason why people seem to prefer Mary Ann over Ginger in recent years, and why there appears to be resentment towards Tina Louise, lies in large part with the TV movie "Surviving Gilligan's Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Three Hour Tour in History" (2001), which Dawn Wells produced and appeared in along with Bob Denver and Russell Johnson.  An admittedly entertaining docu-drama that purports to tell the "behind the scenes" drama on the set of "Gilligan's Island," "Surviving Gilligan's Island" is partly remembered for its dramatization of Tina Louise as a high-maintenance diva who accepted her role on the series because she had been misled to believe she would be the lead, was uncooperative and competitive, particularly with Dawn Wells, and wasn't friendly with the rest of the cast.  Kristen Dalton, who played Tina Louise in the film, rarely attempts to scratch the surface with the character, and portrays Louise, in scenes where she is not in character as Ginger, with a light, breathy, Marilyn Monroe-ish voice that anyone who has done their research and seen her other film and TV roles would realize is not her natural speaking voice.  The mediocre Dalton (who gave the worst performance in Martin Scorsese's 2006 film "The Departed") was clearly lazy and it shows in her shallow, one-dimensional performance.  I spoke with Tina Louise on the phone around the time it originally aired.  She was concerned about the movie, and said she was surprised that Dawn Wells portrayed her in a negative light and never asked her to participate in it, because she always liked Wells and considered her a friend.  However, since the movie aired a few weeks after 9/11, and because she lives in Manhattan and volunteers as a literacy advocate at a local public school, she decided to put things into the larger perspective and ended up talking about a child she was working with who was traumatized because of what had happened in his hometown on 9/11 and how she and the other teachers and volunteers were working with the children to help comfort them and make them feel more secure.  She was trying not to dwell on the past and was busy focusing on the present. 


While there's certainly enough evidence to suggest that Tina Louise may not have been easy to work with on "Gilligan's Island," I couldn't help but feel that the "Surviving Gilligan's Island" TV movie presented a one-sided perspective on Louise, particularly because of what it excluded in terms of depicting her relationships with the cast and crew members.  Director Leslie H. Martinson, a personal friend of mine who directed Tina Louise in the film "For Those Who Think Young" (1964) and on "Dallas," told me how he often saw Louise at the annual holiday party that Jim Backus and his wife hosted, which suggests that Louise and Backus remained on good terms.  In her "Mary Ann's Gilligan's Island Cookbook," Dawn Wells writes about the time Tina Louise asked for her assistance in learning how to cook a Thanksgiving meal for her family after she had gotten married to TV talk show host Les Crane in 1966.  Wells and her mother took Louise shopping for groceries the week before Thanksgiving and prepared a full Thanksgiving meal, with Louise writing down the recipes on notecards.  Wells mentions in her cookbook how, years later, Louise's daughter Caprice Crane told her how her mother kept her notes and recipes and continued referring to them in order to prepare Thanksgiving dinner every year.  It's been years since I read it (and I don't have a copy of it handy for me to double-check), but I seem to recall that, in his memoir, "Forgive Us, Our Digressions," Jim Backus discusses how, when Louise married Les Crane, she asked the "Gilligan's Island" cast to walk her down the aisle and give her away in the ceremony.  When Backus' book was published in 1988, Louise appeared at his book signing to lend moral support. 


In his foreward to the book "Television Sitcoms: An Episode Guide to 153 Sitcoms in Syndication," Alan Hale writes how he spent time with Tina Louise and her daughter at the 1982 Macy's Thanksgiving parade after they had appeared, along with other cast members, on "Good Morning America" the day before to salute the series.  In his book "Inside Gilligan's Island," creator and executive producer Sherwood Schwartz discusses an anecdote Tina Louise shared with him about dining in a restaurant and having a woman approach her and tell her that her husband, who was dying of cancer, would watch taped episodes of her on "Gilligan's Island" and that that brought him comfort before he died.  Schwartz explains how Louise realized, for the first time, the full extent of the impact the show had upon the public after she met that woman.  Louise appeared with the entire cast of the show in 1988 on the Fox talk show "The Late Show" to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the creation of the show.  That same week, she also appeared with her co-stars at the dedication of a "Gilligan's Island"-themed waiting room at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles.  In a podcast interview last year with Mark Thompson, Louise's daughter Caprice Crane recalls how her mother always invited Natalie Schafer whenever she was throwing a party at her house and, because Schafer didn't drive, Louise arranged for a car to pick her up and bring her back from these parties.  These are just a few examples, but I think they help demonstrate the extent to which the "Surviving Gilligan's Island" TV movie may not have presented the full perspective with regards to Tina Louise and her relationship with the series and its personnel both during the series, and in the years afterwards.


It's too bad that Dawn Wells made these creative decisions, and chose to exclude Tina Louise from participating in "Surviving Gilligan's Island," because in so doing the movie missed an opportunity to present a broad and balanced perspective.  While I agree that Tina Louise has often been her worst enemy because she turned down the reunion movies, and gets prickly when people try to interview her about the show, I also think she doesn't deserve being portrayed in a completely unsympathetic light.  I actually believe that both Tina Louise and Dawn Wells are equally to blame for fanning the flames of any purported rivalry between them.  Louise has given people plenty of ammunition to criticize her efforts to disassociate herself from the show.  For instance, even though I don't necessarily think that she "owes" anybody anything and has the right to make her own decisions, I think she should have at least done the first reunion movie--1978's "Rescue from Gilligan's Island"--for old time's sake and also to prevent people from criticizing her.  (I have no issues with her turning down 1979's "The Castaways on Gilligan's Island" and 1981's "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island" because they were indeed wretched and did little to foster any good will towards the original series.)  Moreover, I do agree that Louise should have chosen her words more carefully in countless interviews discussing the series in order to avoid any appearances or perceptions of disparaging it.


Meanwhile Wells herself deserves criticism for continuing to perpetuate the rivalry by producing "Surviving Gilligan's Island" and choosing to exclude Louise from participating and, thus, preventing her from offering her own perspective to that film; missing no opportunity in interviews to take shots at Tina Louise (after Dawn Wells' 2007 arrest in Idaho where she was charged with reckless driving and being found in possession of marijuana, she told "Entertainment Tonight" she had heard from Barbara Eden, who offered moral support, but that she hadn't "heard from Ginger," which could be presumptuous of Wells to expect since this occurred after portraying Louise in a negative light in "Surviving Gilligan's Island"); as well as constantly reminding people that Mary Ann frequently wins the most votes in the "Ginger vs. Mary Ann" debate because Ginger is allegedly less substantial than Mary Ann due to her glamorous and, purportedly promiscuous, image (an assumption which I've attempted to refute in this discussion).  In a recent interview, Wells immodestly states that her character was "the moral compass of the show" (completely overlooking how Russell Johnson's Professor really filled that role) and that the reason why men prefer Mary Ann over Ginger is purportedly because "Ginger is a one-night stand while Mary Ann is for a lifetime.  Mary Ann is the one you would marry or be your best friend or go to the prom with you, while Ginger would be exciting but you'd have to take her to expensive places and buy her a martini...Mary Ann's for the long haul."  In so doing, I'm afraid Dawn Wells overrates her contribution to the show at the expense of undermining the importance of her colleagues, namely Tina Louise.  I always feel like Wells demeans herself when she does it, and that it makes her come across as passive-aggressive.  Whereas Louise doesn't seem particularly concerned about winning this popularity contest, Wells eagerly cultivates followers on Twitter and Facebook who tell her all the time what she wants to hear--that she's the better one.  (The so-called "good girl" ought to know that she doesn't need to keep reminding the world that she's a "good girl" because, if she truly were, then she would understand that we would have already realized it.)  For all of her complaining about being typecast by "Gilligan's Island" in interviews she has made since the late 1960s (which I agree she overdid to her detriment), Tina Louise never made it personal attack against the people she worked with, and often spoke positively about them, whereas Dawn Wells has indeed made it a personal issue in her negative characterization of Tina Louise, as well as the Ginger Grant character, through the years.  As much as I like Dawn Wells' performance as Mary Ann and think she is a talented actress and a smart woman, I wish she would stop playing up the differences between her and Tina Louise, as well as stop giving interviews where she refers to Tina Louise as "Ginger" and Russell Johnson as "the Professor" because it seems to suggest that Wells is living so much in the past that she has lost the ability to distinguish between the characters on the show and the actors who portrayed them.  In my opinion, Wells is behaving the same as someone who still criticizes an office co-worker decades after leaving a particular job.


Even though it appears I have indeed taken sides in the "Ginger vs. Mary Ann" debate because of the case I have made that Ginger Grant, and the actress who portrayed her Tina Louise, are more substantial than they are usually given credit for, I still think it's a bad and stupid issue to debate because all it does is taint a charming and entertaining show from all of our childhoods with competitiveness, negativity and pettiness.  It's clear that Tina Louise and Dawn Wells are both intelligent, accomplished, and substantial individuals who have each done a lot to contribute constructively to the world and that is what they, and we, should spend our times focusing on.  In addition to her numerous film and TV credits, Louise has raised a daughter, Caprice Crane (who is an accomplished screenwriter and novelist who graduated NYU and who has risen above the stereotypes of children who were raised in Hollywood by staying out of trouble and by remaining a contributing member of society), and continues to volunteer in the New York public school system as an education and literacy advocate.  Louise recently completed the horror film "Late Phases" (2014), set to premiere next month at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, and is about to start filming the independently-made drama "Tapestry" (2014), starring Stephen Baldwin and Burt Young, this month.  Wells, in the meantime, has built a long career for herself on the stage and runs a company making clothing for people of limited mobility and has run a film actors boot camp for aspiring actors to learn about the craft of working in the film industry.  They both deserve to be commended and recognized for, not only their long and prolific careers, but also for having created such iconic TV characters who still resonate with us today.  Hopefully, at some point, the debate between which one of them people prefer can be moot so that we can appreciate both Ginger and Mary Ann, and the fine work that Tina Louise and Dawn Wells did in portraying them, when discussing or watching "Gilligan's Island."

20 comments:

  1. Even if Tina Louise were not demonstrating, in her post-Gilligan life, of what she is made, I would tell you, on the basis of the characters only, THERE IS NOT DOUBT that I would take GINGER OVER MARY ANN! After all, a 12 year old boy understands, somehow, what Ginger is about with that dress and that voice and that smile. Mary Ann, on the other hand, could have been the boy's classmate or cousin or sister. . . a case of the girl-next-door being much, much less than the glamorous vixen from Hollywood! But to each his own in this age-old argument. It is like asking, really, "Red or white?"

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    1. Ginger. Mary Ann did NOTHING for me. Even at 13 I daydreamed about Ginger.

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  2. An excellent blog.


    Thanks for putting some nuance into what is, I agree, a divisive and demeaning "either/or" social argument. .

    That Tina Louise moved on quickly from "Ginger Grant", reestablishing herself in the wider variety of roles she had been doing before the series, is a testament to how good she is as an actress. Her public responses to the docu-drama "Surviving Gillgan's Island" was very classy as well. She stated, if I recall correctly, "I didn't recognize myself", in the way she was portrayed and then leaving it at that. That is deserving of the highest marks in a country where celebrities so often play their feuds out in public for months on end.

    As a fan of the show, I would naturally liked to see her do the reunion movies, but I respect that it didn't work out for her to do so.


    This essay does an excellent job bringing out the nuance she brought to Ginger, with some credit to the writer Joanna Lee who wrote some of her best episodes, including the "Eva Grubb" episode.

    There was always a kindness and a charm to Ginger, not least as you mention in her helping the other castaways ,and pitching in despite her elevated station. This likely would have not been in the show had not Ms. Louise fought for those qualities.

    I've watched some of these episodes in full for the first time since in a couple decades via TVLand, and i concur with 100 percent of your overview of the shows. I'm glad Tina is still out there working. That's all any fan can possibly expect of her.

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  3. Great stuff...The Ginger character was indeed deeper than given credit for and Ms. Louise brought out so much of that. As for Ginger being promiscuous I always think of Episode 21 "Big Man on a Little Stick. The girls are infatuated with surfer/muscleman Duke Williams, but when he puts the moves on Ginger only 24 hours after arriving she rebuffs him. She even warns Mary Ann about Duke, but the supposedly chaste Ms. Summers actually seeks out Duke anyway. Yes, Ginger was always willing to use her sex appeal to aid a rescue, but in that instance she turned it off to assist the other Castaways...As you point out she was always, despite appearances, a team player. Thanks for an excellent read!

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    1. Thanks for your comments. I'm glad you understood what I was trying to convey in this article. I wish I had remembered "Big Man on a Little Stick," because the example you gave fit into my thesis, so I'm really glad you mentioned it.

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    2. No problem. That's my favorite episode. I love Denny Miller as the more muscles/less gray matter surfer dude. When it came to narcissism he put even Ginger to shame. And of course the ridiculous premise of surfing a tsunami and then a "reverse tsunami" is silly genius! Great blog...Have a good one!

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  4. It's so hard to reconcile Tina's - for want of a better word - disdain for the series, when she, in particular, gives her all as Ginger Grant. She seems to relish the role; and that, in essence, is the secret of the show's success. All the actors really throw themselves into their parts, but none more so than Tina. It's why she's my favorite female character from TV's golden era ... and, believe me, that says plenty, because, as we all know, there are many, many, very worthy contenders.

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  5. The article is superb—and extensive—spot on. The writers clearly wrote to stereotypes but the actresses were not stereotypes of their characters—at least not Ginger Grant. I love Gilligan's Island and always have. …and I certainly never understood the Ginger vs Mary Ann argument...heck I liked em both. That said, Tina Louise is simply a much bigger and diverse star than Dawn Wells…perhaps because of that she downplays everything she ever did. I think that just makes Tina earthy if not a bit difficult too. I think you captured all the nuance extremely well along with providing a very enjoyable snapshot of many Gilligan's Island moments.

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  6. I loved her as Julie on "Dallas." I wish they wouldn't have pushed her off the roof. In fact, when I think of Tina, I think of her gutsy Julie (and the fact that she only did a few episodes shows you what an impression she made on me). Great article!

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  7. TL:DR it all.
    You do a disservice to the character of Mary Ann. She was certainly not subservient.
    Me thinks you are doing a little white knighting. Without sounding too crude I would stoop Ginger Grant and make love with Mary Ann.

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  8. You've convinced me, but then I remember Tina Louise's performances in films like The Trap and Day of the Outlaw.

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  9. I've always preferred Ginger over Mary Ann. I don't think it was terrible that Tina did not participate in the first reunion film. It was kind of sub-par in quality compared to the series probably because CBS wasn't involved (or interested I think).

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  10. I found this to be an excellent, well written article in defence of Tina Louise and Ginger Grant. Thank you for sharing!

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  11. Mary Ann, dawn was even just plain more attractive physically. For the entire first season Tina made the same shtick on camera, was dismissive of her fellow actors and spent a lot of down time having sex with her boyfriend in her dressing room. Three books a about the show by three different people on the set say the same thing, Tina was a jerk. Dawn, Maryann all the way.

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  12. Tina and Dawn...are 2 different people each with their own personality traits both positive and negative traits. I enjoyed watching both on Gilligan's Island.

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  13. I was Impressed by the Essay by Wut's his name!!! T-Day. 2015.
    BUT
    Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor?????
    Since the 9th grade, I choose Elizabeth Taylor!!!!
    ----------------------------------------
    I just Don't Care About the [ Make UP Face ] Sexy-Sex POT!!!!
    I want some One that I can TALK to!!! & Feel at Ease!!!!
    I Don't have to ACT Funny, because I'm in the HOT HEAT of a Sexy-Sex Pot!!!
    --------------------------------------------------
    Besides, I have been Watching Inter-Views with the 77-year old Dawn WeLLs!!!
    I just LOVE Dawn WeLLs, even at 77.... We Can't ALL LOVE the same Person!!!
    There is NO Correct Answer!!! BUT I Really Love Dawn WeLLs, at 100-years old!!!
    --------------------------
    I want a CLONE of Dawn WeLLs. in the Kingdom of GOD, for ALL Eternity...
    Justin Martyr, Salem, Oregon.

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  14. OK!!! NOW I am Getting MAD!!! This is MY Third Attempt!!!
    These Site Controllers just Keep Jacking ME around!!!
    I want to POST as, just me!!! Why should I have to Post via Google Plus!!!
    =======================
    I Vote Mary Ann WeLLs, but NOW I have NO Desire to Explain MY Reasonings
    once Again, After having been Exterminated, Twice Already & Maybe a 3rd Time!!!

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    1. I could not agree more So sick of that shit. let people just post and then ok it later. If your running blog, its not that hard.

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  15. In spite of your somewhat poor grammar I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article even though I feel you conflate the character Ginger Grant performed by Tina Louise at times with Tina Louise the person.

    Tina Louise possesses none of the amiable vivaciousness and effervescence Ginger Grant possessed. Unlike Ginger Grant, Tina Louise would be a most disagreeable woman to know in real life, which is why all the other cast members of Gilligan's Island have always been guarded in their comments whenever they've mentioned anything to do with the working environment on Gilligan's Island.

    The most admirable thing about Tina Louise is the fact it is abundantly apparent she gave 100% of herself in the performance of her character, despite her own personal misgivings and ambivalence regarding the role. But that is how all the other cast members would phrase it when speaking of Gilligan's Island; they'd all say they all got along professionally, which always belies personal tensions whenever things are stated that way.

    The very fact Tina Louise has been incapable of cultivating a more endearing attitude - even as an actress - towards Gilligan's Island even decades later after the show has been applauded by an intergenerational world audience in confirmation and affirmation of the shows enigmatic qualities speaks extremely poorly of her as a person/woman.

    The irony being, of course, Tina Louise has displayed more fidelity to the shows cultural standing and heritage as a pop icon by not having participated in any of the atrocious remakes. It is unfortunate the other cast members didn't have the same fidelity and good sense to leave well enough alone in what can only be described as a truly horrific misadventure.

    I can well understand Tina Louise's condescending attitudes towards Gilligan's Island back in the early sixties especially after her many initial successes in movies and the theatre as that was the general attitude towards television by so-called series actors/actresses of the day.

    But to still not be able to 'get with the program' decades later?

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  16. A great and extensive blog! And I thought I was the only one that "GOT" Tina Louise. In answer to a letter I wrote her years ago, in which I wrote that,while I believed she should be proud of her performance as Ginger, I knew that that was not the beginning and ending of her career and that she she also be praised for other roles, she responded, "...it's nice to know that someone gets the picture!"

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