Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Prolific and Underrated: Lois Chiles

There are many prolific and underrated actors and actresses whose work made a significant impression on me while I was growing up, and still resonate with me today.  I plan to write about many of them on this blog.  Texas-born Lois Chiles is one such individual.  Chiles is primarily remembered as a Bond Girl in “Moonraker” (1979).  Her performance as Holly Goodhead is where I first discovered her, as it was one of the first movies I ever saw in the theatres when I was still a kid.  However, my interest in Chiles didn’t begin and end with “Moonraker. ” It was merely the jumping off point.  Being a Bond Girl might be most people’s frame-of-reference to Chiles, but she was the rare one who had a notable career both before and after Bond.  It helps that she appeared in high-profile films and TV shows that many people actually saw.  Her direct manner and confident screen persona made her a pleasure to watch.  Over time, she became an actress who, if I knew she was in something, I would always take the time to watch it, no matter what it was.  It’s a shame that director Howard Hawks was no longer making films by the time Chiles came along.  Her brunette-looks and deep-voiced maturity would have appealed to him. 
Chiles first came into prominence as the second female lead in “The Way We Were” (1973) playing Robert Redford’s girlfriend before he fell in love with Barbra Streisand.  Chiles eschewed the “other woman” stereotype by playing Carol Ann as sensible, warm, level headed.  She provided a viable alternative to Streisand’s fiery campus radical.  Because Chiles was so appealing as Carol Ann, it made you realize how deeply Redford’s character had fallen in love with Streisand in the film, despite their differences, because he already had a terrific girlfriend in his life. 
Chiles followed this up with another notable role in a Robert Redford film by playing self-possessed 1920s golfer Jordan Baker, one of the less malevolent characters in the 1974 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.”  As with Carol Ann, Chiles brings welcome flashes of humanity to what could have been a cynical portrayal of ennui and decadence.  Her Jordan Baker comes across worldly and self-aware.  She knows her own shortcomings but is too lazy and resigned to change it, which is why her relationship with Sam Waterston’s Nick Carraway is doomed.  Chiles’s relaxed and subdued elegance strikes a welcome contrast to the hysteria of Mia Farrow and the vulgarity of Karen Black in the film. 
Chiles essayed her first genuinely unsympathetic character in 1978’s “Death on the Nile,” playing Agatha Christie’s murder victim Linnet Ridgeway Doyle.  Unlike similar characters in other Christie adaptations, Chiles has a significant amount of screen time in the first hour of this 2 and a half hour film.  She has funny sparring scenes, and holds her own, opposite screen legends Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, and Angela Lansbury in the film.  (I laugh everytime Lansbury references her thinly veiled novel about Chiles’s character entitled “Passion Under the Persimmon Tree.”)  If Chiles’s character comes across as chilly and shallow in “Death on the Nile,” it is because Linnet Ridgeway is constantly held up for ridicule or criticism by almost every other character in the film.  It is only upon repeat viewings of the film that it becomes obvious that her character is not the monster that everybody is describing.  If you watch “Death on the Nile” closely, she really hasn’t harmed anybody else in the story.  She is the object of hatred and resentment more for what she symbolizes to the other characters in the film than by her actions. 
I have to admit that, for a long time, I honestly did not understand the double-entendre of the Holly Goodhead name in “Moonraker” because Chiles played her in a classy, understated manner.  (I had to have a friend in college actually explain it to me!)  She was never as crass or obvious in her approach as Lana Wood playing Plenty O’Toole in “Diamonds are Forever” (1971) or Britt Ekland as Mary Goodnight in “The Man with the Golden Gun” (1974).  Her character was more “grown-up” than other leading ladies in the series.  She played Goodhead with an insouciant and self-possessed wit, and I wish the script actually allowed her a chance to be more than a plot device.  But as “plot devices” go, Chiles is one of the best in the series.
She was off-screen for several years tending to a family crisis, but returned with a vengeance in 1982 playing another memorable Holly—Holly Harwood—on the 1982-83 season of “Dallas,” which was then the top television series in the world.  Chiles did some of her best work on “Dallas,” playing an initially na├»ve young oil company heiress who foolishly becomes business partners with JR Ewing and lives to regret it.  Holly allies herself with JR’s tenacious younger brother Bobby in his competition against JR for control of Ewing Oil under the terms of family patriarch Jock Ewing’s will. 
Unlike Goodhead, this Holly was much more than a mere plot device.  Chiles created a sympathetic, essentially decent woman pushed into a corner, who toughens her resolve, and ultimately retaliates against JR with unforeseen consequences for all involved.  Her scenes with Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy always crackled with intensity and fire.  In some episodes during her tenure, she would appear in just one scene.  But typically those single scenes were so well-written and acted, they pushed the story and emotions forward with more momentum than characters who appeared frequently throughout the whole episode.  She was a completely unpredictable character.  In one episode, she pulled a gun on JR during a late night visit to her bedroom as she laid down "new ground rules" for their business relationship.  Her actions inadvertently created a tragic situation for the other characters, and cost her any chance of Bobby falling in love with her.  Chiles’s Holly Harwood caused so much damage within one year (and just 25 episodes!) of “Dallas,” the characters were still talking about her five, six years later.  She accomplished the near-impossible task on “Dallas” of catching JR off-guard and messing with him in ways nobody else in the series could.
Chiles enjoyed a career renaissance in the late 1980s.  She had a notable supporting role as a TV journalist in “Broadcast News” (1987) and, again, defied the “other woman” stereotype by coming across as less manipulative than Holly Hunter in her pursuit of William Hurt in the film.  Chiles’s character disappears in the latter-half of “Broadcast News,” sent away by Hunter to cover the Alaska serial killer murder trial so that she can pursue William Hurt unimpeded.  Except for a brief vignette with Chiles reporting in the snow on a TV monitor, you never see her character again.  I always wished Chiles got to return from Alaska, during the sequence when the news room team is being laid off, so that she could run into Hunter in the hallway (while Hunter is distraught over the firings), and remind Hunter of her own underhanded machinations before she gets to wallow in her self-pity.
That same year, Chiles stole the show in the final segment of “Creepshow 2” (1987), playing a wealthy, adulterous woman terrorized on the highway by the ghost of a hitchhiker she has just killed in a hit-and-run accident.  In a role that was essentially a running monologue, she was profane, cynical, unsympathetic, and hilarious.  You were never sure who to root for, her or the hitchhiker, because both were monstrous in their own unique way.  Chiles’s played the role with gusto and relish and made the most of the opportunity.  I remember seeing it with my friends from High School at the Edwards Temple Cinemas in Alhambra, California on a Saturday afternoon and we cheered with laughter and enjoyment during Chiles’s sequence. 
In the 1990s, Chiles made welcome appearances in Wim Wenders’s “Until the End of the World,” various television movies, and episodic TV guest appearances (including an excellent “Murder, She Wrote” in 1990 where she reunited with Angela Lansbury), as she matured gracefully and started playing mothers and other authority figures.  In 1997, she had a funny cameo in the first “Austin Powers” movie, and was one of the few passengers whose performance was not lost in the cacophony of explosions, tedium, and catastrophe of “Speed 2: Cruise Control.”  (The same, unfortunately, could not be said for the game Colleen Camp in the same film.  But I’ll save that for my upcoming blog entry about Ms. Camp!) 
In recent years, Chiles has taught film acting courses at the University of Houston and married the classy and respected Wall Street financier and philanthropist Richard Gilder.  She now serves on the board of advisors for the Yale School of Drama, is actively involved in supporting the arts and other philanthropic endeavors, and will have a theatre named after her at the Northfield Mount Hermon secondary school due to Gilder’s support of the school’s theatre and arts programs.  While I hope Lois Chiles can still find time for acting roles, amidst all of this activity, there is no doubt that she continues to brighten the world both on-screen and off. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Linda Darnell day on TCM; Saturday, August 27th, 2011

This month TCM is doing a tribute to a different movie star every day with their "Summer Under the Stars" festival.  On Saturday, they are paying tribute to Linda Darnell, one of the 1940s most popular movie stars.  She is forgotten by the general public today, but during the decade she was arguably more popular than, say, Lauren Bacall (even though Bacall is better-remembered today).  Many have noted that her rise to stardom was the stereotypical Cinderella story, but with an unhappy ending.  By the time she was in high school, she was a child model and had appeared in beauty contests due to machinations of a driving stage mother.  At the age of 15, she was discovered by a talent scout at 20th Century-Fox, who helped arrange a screen test.  She was deemed too young by the studio and sent home disappointed.  Nevertheless, she stayed in touch with the talent scout and eventually the next year, at age 16, she was given a long-term contract at Fox and starred in her first feature film "Hotel for Women" (1939). Her mother moved the entire family out to Los Angeles intending to supervise Darnell's career and bask in the glory of her daughter's success.

Her career at Fox was delineated by two distinct phases.  She started out playing sweet, ingenue types with a light, soft voice and later matured into playing more worldly, sexier roles with a deeper voice.  In the first phase at Fox, she was paired four time on-screen with Tyrone Power, in "Day-Time Wife" (1939), "Brigham Young-Frontiersman" (1940), "The Mark of Zorro (1940), and "Blood and Sand (1941).  Darnell and Power were indescribably beautiful together.  They had a wholesome, easy chemistry that seemed more like brother-and-sister than intense lovers, but it always seemed appropriate when their characters ended up together.  It would have been interesting, later in the 1940s, to have seen the Power/Darnell chemistry develop further, when both of their screen images matured after WWII, as they lost their youthful naivete and became darker, even seedier at times.  Unfortunately, they never worked together again, as Darnell had to relinquish the female lead in "Captain from Castille" (1947) to Jean Peters when its shooting schedule conflicted with the filming of "Forever Amber" (1947).

During her career, she worked with top directors (Ford, Mankiewicz, Sturges, Mamoulian, Sirk, Preminger, to name a few) but was always taken for granted because of her looks.  By all accounts, Darnell was well-liked but generally seen as light-weight material in Hollywood.  At Fox, she always seemed overshadowed by Anne Baxter (who was considered a better actress) or Gene Tierney (who was considered more exotic and mysterious).  During the height of the war, despite her popularity and visibility (especially in the movie magazines of the day) Darnell's career appeared to have stalled.  Some have speculated that this was due to Darnell's reluctance to acquiesce to the sexual advances of studio head Darryl Zanuck.  (Since the parties are no longer here to confirm or refute this rumor, I am inclined out of fairness to not give it credence.)  Others have opined that Darnell fell out of favor with Fox executives due to the meddling influence of her mother, whose eccentricities included bringing the family pet chicken to the studio. 

Whatever the reason, she was given thankless parts in "The Loves of Edgar Allen Poe" (1942) and "Sweet and Low-Down" (1944), was loaned out to Columbia for "City Without Men" (1943), given the second female lead in "Buffalo Bill" (1944), and was uncredited playing the Virgin Mary in "The Song of Bernadette" (1943). The disapproval by Fox executives was exacerbated when, at age 19, she married cinematographer J. Peverell Marley, who was 22 years her senior.  Darnell kept herself busy during this fallow period by doing commendable volunteer work in support of the Allied war effort--selling war bonds, visiting military installations, working for the Red Cross, and volunteering in the evenings entertaining military personnel at the Hollywood Canteen.

However, by mid-decade, there was a turn for the better when Darnell, while on loan-out to United Artists, garnered good publicity for her femme fatale role in "Summer Storm" (1944) director Douglas Sirk's adaptation of Chekhov's "The Hunting Party."  This caused Fox to start paying more attention to Darnell, and better opportunities were on her horizon in the post-war years.  Darnell was one of the beneficiaries of the burgeoning noir genre, thanks to "Hangover Square" and "Fallen Angel" (both 1945).  Both her acting and screen image matured during this time, as she was no longer typecast as the sweet ingenue.   During this phase of her career, she appeared in such major Fox productions as "Anna and the King of Siam" (1946), John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" (1946), Preston Sturges's "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948), and "Forever Amber" (1947).

The last was meant to be her tour-de-force, based on Kathleen Windsor's best-seller, but it was plagued by production difficulties, a ballooning budget, inordinate audience expectations, and Otto Preminger's lifeless direction.  Darnell did not enjoy working with Preminger, and it's likely that his alleged contempt for her acting abilities made him unwilling to tap into her strengths as an actress (an underlying vulnerability and decency no matter what the role) while directing her in "Amber."  She capped off the decade with a pair of Joseph L. Mankiewicz dramas that constitute her best work, "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949) and "No Way Out" (1950).  In contrast to Preminger, Mankiewicz recognized Darnell's virtues as an actress and her work blossomed under his tutelage.  Under Mankiewicz, Darnell's created characters whose outward cynicism masked a hopeful idealism for a better life for themselves.

However, this renaissance had its limits and was short-lived.  Despite the good critical notices for her performances during this time, she still had to struggle to land good parts.  After her triumph in "A Letter to Three Wives," Zanuck followed it up by dumping Darnell into "Slattery's Hurricane," an unchallenging melodrama where Darnell had to compete with Veronica Lake for screen-time with Richard Widmark.  Darnell had hoped to star in Elia Kazan's "Pinky," the story of a young African American woman who passes for Caucasian.  While, admittedly, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were the most appropriate candidates for the role, the brunette Darnell would have been arguably much more convincing than red-haired Jeanne Crain, whose fair appearance undercut her otherwise good performance and makes it difficult for contemporary audiences to take the film seriously.  By the early 1950s, her contract with Fox was not renewed and she went freelance for the next decade, doing TV and B features.  Her final film with Fox after over 13 years with the studio was the low-grade mystery drama "Night Without Sleep" (1952) where Gary Merrill spends 77 minutes trying to figure out if he really committed a murder, or was just imagining it.

She was plagued by drinking problems, three failed marriages (to a business executive and an airline pilot after divorcing Marley), and financial difficulties.  She reportedly had had a disappointing affair with her "A Letter to Three Wives" director Joseph Mankiewicz that further undercut her self-esteem.  It ended when she learned in the trade papers that the role he claimed he was writing for her in "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954), a movie she helped to inspire and counted on to revive her career, was going to Ava Gardner.  As a product of being under contract to Fox for so long, Darnell had not developed the survival instincts that it took to continue working in Hollywood without the mentoring and guidance of others.  Her most notable film in the late 1950s was "Zero Hour!" (1957), an airline disaster melodrama later remade in comedic fashion as "Airplane!" (1980).  Darnell had a decent part as Dana Andrews's estranged wife who plays a key role in helping him land the plane by manning the communications equipment after the flight crew is felled by food poisoning.  It was her last film for 8 years.  By the 1960s, she wasn't able to find any work in Hollywood and was doing summer stock, touring companies, and night club appearances.

She died from third-degree burns over 90 percent of her body sustained in a house fire while visiting friends near Chicago in 1965.  She had just completed her "Black Spurs," one of the many low-budget "B" westerns produced at Paramount by A.C. Lyles.  It was her first film in 8 years since "Zero Hour!" and the last she would ever make.  Lyles claimed that he was planning to hire Darnell for further "B" westerns with Paramount and, considering his sizable output of drive-in oaters during the 1960s starring veteran actors of the 1940s and 1950s, one could argue that Darnell was on the verge of another shot at gainful employment in Hollywood.  (I sometimes scan the titles of other Lyles westerns on IMDB and speculate which could have been the ones that Darnell was supposed to make.)  She could have parlayed that into roles in other "B" features and more guest-starring roles on television in the 1960s and would have been around to enjoy a potential resurgence in the 1970s when Hollywood classics of her era were being appreciated at revival theaters and college campuses.  With her career accomplishments, and the pedigree of her colleagues, she undoubtedly would have been a great participant in DVD commentary tracks and featurettes in recent years had she not died so soon. 

Obviously, this is the sort of idealistic speculation by someone who appreciated her work and wanted a better outcome for her life.  Unfortunately, none of this happened for her, but she left behind a more-than-respectable 40-plus film career that deserves better recognition, so I am glad TCM is giving her her due.  At the bottom is a link to their schedule for the day.  If you want a quick, short-hand tutorial on Darnell that day, the most notable films are "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949) at 8 PM, "Star Dust" (1940) at 10 PM, and "No Way Out" (1950) at 1:00 AM. 

If you can, you should DVR these three films, but try and see any of the films airing that day to learn more about one of the most underrated stars of that era.  I have no doubt that, if you give Darnell a chance, you'll get hooked and want to see more of her.  She always had a touching quality, even when she played seedier characters, that made you want to root for her.  "A Letter to Three Wives" and "No Way Out" are generally considered her best performances.  In "Three Wives," she steals the show playing a sympathetic golddigger who finds true love in spite of herself.  She has the best part of all three female leads, and is the only one who appears in all of the flashback sequences in the film, which arguably makes her the de-facto main character in the film.  In "No Way Out," she has a gritty dramatic role as a car hop who instigates a race riot and later tries to make amends for it by preventing Sidney Poitier's character from being killed by racist Richard Widmark.  The movie itself is dated and heavy-handed, but Darnell carries the best portions of the story when it drops the social-reform posturing and diverts into straightforward suspense melodrama mode.  Her character is allowed to be more complex and nuanced compared to Poitier's clean-cut doctor, and Widmark's mannered thug.  It's a shame these films arrived towards the end of her Fox tenure, when Darnell had matured as an actress to effectively tackle more challenging roles.

"Star Dust," made early in her career, is particularly delightful--it is a semi-autobiographical story of a young girl discovered in the South who goes to Hollywood and, despite obstacles, becomes a movie star.  The irony is that, the night Darnell died, she and her friends caught "Star Dust" on the late movie and she watched this film, which was inspired by her own life, just hours before the fire that would claim her life.  The movie gives Darnell the happy ending that she should have had in real life.