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. 

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