Sunday, January 01, 2012


                I was thinking about Joan Collins today. Specifically about her first Hollywood sojourn  back in the 50’s. She’d have to wait 25 years or so for mega-fame (via TV’s “Dynasty”). But like so many old-hatters, I’ve always considered TV fame a poor cousin to movie stardom. I remember reading a Robert Stack interview years ago  where he mentioned losing the 1956 supporting actor Oscar. His questioner chimed in with some comforting words like “well, you did get an Emmy later for “The Untouchables”.
To which Stack responded (with his patented granite delivery , I’d imagine) that winning an Emmy was like getting an award as the world’s tallest midget. Amen. He clearly believed that no TV trophy
could ever rise above the level of a consolation prize. Anyway, as usual, I digress. Top tier movie stardom eluded Collins in the 50’s. But that’s when she branded herself on the brains of a whole  generation of young boys who remember her primarily (and fondly) as the sexy princess whose pyramid scheme came to a deliriously catastrophic end in ‘Land of the Pharaohs”. That same year (1955) she played another siren – American this time -  the poignantly notorious Evelyn Nesbit in “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing”.  Quite nicely, too.  And her  turn as a suburban sexpot vamping Paul Newman was one of the few things critics approved of  in Leo McCarey’s  mainly dead-in-the-water comedy “Rally Round the Flag, Boys!”(1958). That’s the point my Joan Collins ruminations had reached before they were suddenly stopped cold  when  I remembered that “Rally Round the Flag ,Boys!”  was the film that introduced me to Tuesday Weld. Now there’s an actress whose gifts qualified her – even more than Collins – for a more widely celebrated  career  than she  got. Weld is one of Hollywood’s originals – too special, I guess, to have sustained a big mainstream career in old Hollywood. But that specialness is what makes her a treasure.
                         In “Rally Round the Flag,Boys!’ she’s cast in a small role as somebody’s boy-crazy teenage daughter.  The clueless screenwriters sprinkle her dialogue with daddy-o’s , etc.  But Weld proceeds to subvert all the scripted stupidities with that instinctive emotional candour that’s one of her trademarks.  Unpredictability  gives off an energy of its own  and  - with Weld - unpredictability’s something she just naturally brings to the party. Dwayne Hickman – who shares most of her scenes  – is saddled with the same kind of inane dialogue . And is hopelessly defeated by it. Yet  Weld emerges  unscathed from every encounter. And watch her as Elvis-y Tom Gilson sings to her at a malt shop. The fluttering hands,the playing with her hair, the squeals, the coos . They  all fit together with the complex precision of a Rube Goldberg device - yet  still come off as sheer spontaneous combustion.
                     Onscreen, Weld was as genuinely eccentric as Una O’Connor or Ernest Thesiger.  Particularly surprising because she was so young  (14 when she made “Rally”) and so very,  very  beautiful.  Most screen ingénues would have given  up  their powder-pink convertibles  to look half as good. Yet Weld’s beauty was  just  one aspect of her appeal.  Deliberate quirkiness can be deadly – but when someone actually projects that sort of aura - naturally, authentically, the real goods - then all you can do is stand back, marvel and enjoy. That’s the kind of gift Tuesday Weld displayed time and time again. You could never quite predict the inflections or rhythms she’d bring to any given line of dialogue. She didn’t prowl amongst her syllables like Eartha Kitt or insinuate her way through them a la Mae West  Instead, she seemed to explore them, suddenly emerging with something revelatory, but of what?  That’s what was hard to pin down.  Same goes for her body language. Tics doesn’t seem to be the right word to describe her particular assortment of physical and vocal  idiosyncracies. There  was  something  far more fluid and organic at work in a Weld performance. As if someone had captured her essence  between takes  and somehow transferred  it to the screen.
                Weld had a turbulent background. Her father died when she was three  and as a child model she became  the sole support of her single mother and siblings. If movie magazines and gossip columns of the period are to be believed, she embarked on  a wild lifestyle in the 50’s – drinking, smoking and carousing –a far cry from the Gidget-style image publicly promoted by 50’s Hollywood for its female teen idols. At 13 she made her first film, a low-budget quickie called “Rock, Rock, Rock”, directed by Maureen O’Hara’s  ex-husband Will Price (who helmed only three films, the noirish “Strange Bargain”{1949},“Tripoli”{1950}, a sword, sandal and pirate pastiche {with O’Hara} and his ’56 swan-song).   Each  of these movies is largely unsung  and – for various reasons – highly enjoyable. ”Rock ,Rock ,Rock” was shot on the proverbial  shoe-string  - in and around New York, I think . And was really just an excuse to incorporate performance footage from several then current rock’n’roll acts (Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon, etc). Tuesday was the film’s actual leading lady, anchoring – if that’s the word – a hilariously rudimentary plot that skates fearlessly (and unintentionally) into absurdist territory. Tuesday’s character, Dori, tries to earn enough money to buy a strapless gown  for a school dance. That’s about it.  She sings a little too (with her voice preposterously dubbed by the then semi-unknown Connie Francis, whose full-throttle belting couldn’t be more at odds with Weld’s soft-spoken persona). And her fellow actors, especially the one who plays her best friend, perform at  sub-Ed Wood level. But Weld’s magic is already fully evident. A real petunia in an onion patch. One of the subsidiary pleasures of “Rock ,Rock, Rock” is spotting teenage Valerie Harper as an extra ,bopping and beaming on the sidelines.  Weld seems to have enjoyed the experience. She set her sights on an acting career and was soon a Hollywood name. The Lindsay Lohan-ish lifestyle the press had accused her of seems to have affected neither her looks nor her lucidity; onscreen she remained fresh in every sense of the word. Directors praised her professionalism and critics greeted her performances with (often surprised) approval. Still, mainstream Hollywood wasn’t a place to nurture Weld’s very distinctive talents. She sometimes wound up making the best she could of uninspired melodramas and limp comedies. One could say Hollywood actually worked to suppress and submerge what was most special about her, trying repeatedly to mould her into garden-variety sex-kitten or by-the-book ingénue. It never worked because Weld was just too extraordinary to play stereotypes  For several years she confined herself to  occasional TV appearances (“Naked City”,  “Ben Casey”, “Route 66” - plus a recurring role alongside her old “Rally Round the Flag,Boys!” co-star, Dwayne Hickman in “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”).  She returned to the big screen in ’63 for “Soldier in the Rain” with Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen. It was little seen. But those who did catch it were treated to a Tuesday Weld more luminous than ever. She re-united with McQueen in ’65 for “The Cincinnati Kid”. And this one was a considerable hit. Seen now, Weld’s radiant work as a good-hearted country girl is the movie’s finest feature. The bedrock honesty that earmarked her best work is here refined to a level of purity that achieves  incandescence . And along the way, she has no trouble generating a lot more genuine desirability than co-star Ann-Margret , who wriggles and pouts her way through the proceedings as a cartoon temptress.  By the mid-60’s, Weld’s look  - capped off by long straight blonde hair to die for – was a felicitous match for the Carnaby Street era.  Ditto her  free-spirited aura. She was an industry veteran by now – though  still only  in her early 20’s. And Hollywood did finally seem ready to offer her some films constructed to showcase her individuality. Some point to the comedy “Lord Love a Duck”(1966) as classic Weld. And there's no doubt the actress herself  is in excellent form here. But I find the film as a whole tedious and heavy-handed . Certainly  it doesn’t help that Weld’s surrounded by actors I can’t abide. Bug-eyed Max Showalter (formerly Casey Adams) made a career out of pushing too hard. And Roddy MacDowall ( so good as a tot) is someone whose acting ability and onscreen charm instantly deserted him when puberty hit.  Already insufferable in 1946’s “Holiday in Mexico”, he  hadn’t improved a bit twenty years later. Weld’s a Lolita-like manipulator here – and – as usual – can make even petulance seem profound. That quality served her well in ‘68’s “Pretty Poison”, a critical favourite that teamed her (perfectly) with another eccentric original from the 50’s, Anthony Perkins. This one was laced with black comedy, but worked as drama , thriller and brightly colored bauble as well. Weld played Sue Ann , all-American small-town girl wooed by opportunist Perkins.  Turns out he’s in way over his head;  Sue Ann , it seems, has schemes of her own that soon carry him and the film giddily over the edge.  This may be the best showcase there is of vintage Tuesday Weld. Beverly Garland and John Randolph are superb in support. But it’s the combined magic of Weld and Perkins, recognized, encouraged and celebrated by director Noel Black that makes the film one of the 60’s great pleasures.
                At this point, Weld’s priorities seem to have altered. Marriage and motherhood changed the direction of her life. She turned down a number of exciting properties (“Bonnie and Clyde”, “Rosemary’s Baby”). And though both Bonnie and Rosemary were superbly played by the actresses who did get the roles, one can’t help but wish for an alternate universe where additional versions starring Weld were extant. There’s no way she could have been anything but memorable in them.
                Tuesday Weld continued to act from time to time, sometimes on television, occasionally in movies. In 1977 she got a long overdue Oscar nomination (for supporting actress in “Looking  for Mr. Goodbar”).And fans have had the great (but all too infrequent)  pleasure of seeing her add her substantial presence to films like “Who’ll Stop the Rain”(’78), “Once Upon a Time in America”(84) and “Falling Down”(’93). The latterday Tuesday Weld is less the quicksilver eccentric and more the  fully-rounded pro. The old essence is still there , of course,  always  informing her work but never overwhelming it . Makes me think of her peer, Brandon de Wilde, a natural talent, who – as a child –was so compellingly off the wall  in “The Member of the Wedding” and “Shane”;  then, as he grew older - with hard-work and intelligence - honed his craft and developed into a  superb journeyman actor. I’d say that description applies to Weld as well.
                 But, you know, I wish it were possible to team Tuesday Weld in her professional  prime with Christopher Walken in his. What a combination that would be! A perfect storm of inspired inflections, sly  rhythms and subliminal torpedos. Can you imagine the artistic cat’s cradles these two could  create together? Wow! Double wow!