Please enjoy some of my personal film-making memories.
The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom – Paramount 1968
The Bliss Of Mrs. Blossom is one of those movies that you cannot remember filming…much less seeing. Although, it was a good film – I think! – it might have been a success at the box office if only the distributing studio, Paramount, had gotten behind it.
The Village Voice called it, “The sleeper of the year” and other reviews were very favorable to my co-star, Richard Attenborough and me. Variety called it, “A silly, and sophisticated material comedy, always amusing and often hilarious in impact.” One critic lamented that, “The financial failure of Mrs. Blossom could have been averted if they had changed the title to: ‘Adultery In The Attic.'”
My fondest memories from Mrs. Blossom was meeting and working with Richard Attenborough, now Sir Attenborough, a man of true gentility and style. His talents extended far beyond acting, and when we worked together in 1966, his mind and heart were already occupied with a picture he would ultimately direct, “Gandhi.” Richard was a lesson in passion. He was passionately obsessed with putting the life of Gandhi on the screen and talked continually about the concept. He made me question if I could feel that much of a committed passion for a project. He wanted me to play Margaret Bourke-White, a coveted role in the film. He was turned down for twenty years by every studio in town, and when he finally got the money to realize his vision, I was too old to play the part. Candice Bergen did it and the film “Gandhi” went on to win every award. It became a classic.
Richard is an Englishman whom I admire greatly, for his perseverance and a person who admits to guilt and responsibility for so much of his country’s past. He is ennobling and not afraid of seeming sentimental in his unabashed liberal point of view. He seems to want to wipe the slate clean and put the past right.
A far bigger disappointment to me than the failure of “The Bliss Of Mrs. Blossom” was the lamentable outcome of the 1968 election. For the first time, I began to take an active part in America’s political process, acting as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Perhaps it was Richard’s passion for wiping the slate clean that led me into a tragic, numbing experience, watching student anti-war demonstrators being clubbed into bloody submission by the Chicago police. This was my beginning, my baptism of fire into American politics, which turned into a long winding road that I still traverse even today.
Gambit – Universal 1966
Gambit was my entry in the crime caper sweepstakes that was taking place in films that year. My brother Warren had Bonnie and Clyde and I had Gambit, which was the story of an elaborate scheme to steal a priceless Chinese statuette.
The studio – Universal, had given me the power to select the director and leading man of my choice. At the time we were thinking of Sidney Furie as a possible director, so we screened his hot new film. Unfortunately Sidney was committed, but one of the actors in the film, the guy with the glasses, really caught my eye. His name was Michael Caine.
I selected him for my leading man and that was the beginning of a long, lustrous career for Michael. He would later say, “That’s how I got into Hollywood… she was very kind. All those stories I’ve heard about stars being awkward and standoffish – but here was a super star, one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, going out of her way for me. I’ll always remember her for that. She was the passport to glamour for me.”
I adore Michael’s acting ability and he tickled me with his dry sardonic wit. The media always felt there was a hidden agenda in my selecting him as my leading man in Gambit. I remember telling a reporter that there was no sexual chemistry between us off screen, if I would go to bed with Michael I’m sure we would just laugh all night. We couldn’t do anything else because we would be laughing too much.
When Michael arrived in Hollywood, he cut a wide swath through the single girls like a rocket with no resistance. He would report to work after a hard night’s play, stagger into his trailer, blast his Beatles records up to hyperspace, and try to get some sleep.
Michael was funny about his Hollywood escapades. He was most confused by American pantyhose and couldn’t figure a way to get into them, around them, or through them. I suggested he hang himself with them.
Michael takes a part and finds a laugh at every corner and I am so glad he never forgot his humble beginnings because that memory is the reason for the audiences’ continued identification with him. Long live Sir Michael.
The Yellow Rolls Royce – MGM 1965
The other studios said that it would be impossible for this opulent film, top heavy with international stars, not to make money at the box office. It was lavishly mounted and shot entirely abroad. But the film was internationally successful, as MGM had predicted.
This story line consists of three episodes that are tied together by successive ownership of a superb yellow Rolls Royce, which figures prominently in all stories. In episode two, I portray Mae Jenkins, girlfriend to Mafia big-timer Paolo Maltese (George C. Scott) who are touring Italy together with Paolo’s henchman Joey (Art Carney). In route they encounter Stefano, a handsome young photographer played by Alaine Delou.
George C. Scott was addicted to chess. Perhaps he was using it as inspiration for his character (a gangster) I don’t know. I couldn’t find out because he never talked. We starred together for a few months and never exchanged more than a “Good morning,” if that. He was very much in character, impeccable with his lines, but he only talked to his makeup man. George would wander over to him after every camera setup to complete the chess move he must have decided on during our take.
Alaine Delon was a French heartthrob. He was prettier than most actresses I had worked with and took half the salary he could have made elsewhere in order to work with this cast in an American film. He protested angrily when studio censors threatened to snip his hot love scenes with me, which were considered too hot for the screen… at that time. He felt his romantic scenes would make him a star in the United States. They did not, although the scenes provoked the otherwise jaded Italian film crew to applaud at the end of our steamy takes.
After the picture was finished, Alaine asked me to take a drive with him in a new racecar – a formula something or other. It became a surreal experience as we drove all night, from Italy to Monaco at 110 miles per hour. He told me at the beginning of the trip not to speak, as it would break his concentration and warned me that if I did not adhere to these rules, he would stop the car and let me out. We made the journey in record time. But, I flew back to Italy via airplane.
Filming of The Yellow Royce became a lesson of silence. Alaine Delon wouldn’t let me speak, George C. Scott refused to talk, and the director was hard of hearing.
What a Way to Go – 20th Century Fox 1964
This was my fantasy film! Every young girl has a fantasy about starring in a film that has lavish benefits. Well, how about a half dozen superstar leading men, seventy-two costumes designed by Edith Head with a $500,000 budget, seventy-two hairstylists to match the gowns, and a three-and-a-half-million-dollar gem collection loaned out by Harry Winston of New York. Pretty good perks, I’d say.
I kept pinching myself to see if I would wake from this incredible dream but it was real! Thank heavens! After all I had become the number six box office attraction in America behind Doris Day, Jack Lemmon, Rock Hudson, John Wayne and Cary Grant… what a way to go! And my leading men were certainly not chopped liver. There was Robert Cummings who lived on vitamins, Dean Martin who lived on Scotch, Dick Van Dyke who lived on comedy, Paul Newman who lived, Robert Mitchum who lived on life and Gene Kelly who lived on the perfection of song and dance.
Once filming began my fantasy soon turned to reality! The filming became difficult… for me anyway. I had to adjust to a different leading man every two weeks and this was not easy for every good actor has his or her idiosyncrasies and that at times can become quite disconcerting and sometimes disruptive. It’s sort of like having a love relationship with a different man every two weeks. The give and take of the relationships have different boundaries and barriers that must be overcome to insure a compatible relationship, and in my circumstance, a good performance on the screen.
Everyone on the film felt that it would be a blockbuster! Unfortunately, we were all wrong.
Ironically, What A Way To Go symbolized the dream of wealth with it’s lavishness but the title and symbolism were not prophetic in reality. The film was a dud. But, we would all bounce back. That’s what actors do. And some of us came back with a vengeance that could easily be interpreted as a personal commitment to work harder in better projects. The other irony here is that this picture is now, almost 40 years later, considered a cult classic by many.
Irma la Douce – United Artists/1963
One of the most publicized and eagerly awaited films of 1963 was my next vehicle – ‘Irma la Douce’. It was based on a highly successful 1960 Broadway musical about a Parisian prostitute. The film was to be directed by Billy Wilder, probably the hottest director in Hollywood at that time. He had done ‘Some Like It Hot’ and ‘The Apartment’. Both of those films had broken records for box office receipts for a comedy.
Jack Lemmon was set and signed for the male lead, but Irma, it was reported, was to be played by Marilyn Monroe. After Marilyn’s death in 1962, Elizabeth Taylor was prominently mentioned around town as the front-runner for the coveted role. I felt the part would be disastrous for a Hollywood sex symbol like Monroe or Taylor. To me, Irma was more naive, wide-eyed and an innocent-looking, young thing, like I was in those days. I was surprised when Billy Wilder called me to say that he had been impressed with the chemistry between Jack and me in ‘The Apartment’. Then he asked when I could begin filming! I remember signing to do Irma without even reading the script because I believed in Jack and Billy.
Without Billy’s knowledge, Jack and I went to Paris’ ‘Les Halles’ district and spent two days in a house of ill repute to study and observe the working girls. This is where I met Danielle, the French hooker that I patterned my character of Irma after. Danielle spent hours with me. She explained the routines and skills required in her profession. I learned so much in those two days.
There are certain inalienable traditions in the world of prostitution such as never removing one’s shoes or the speed at which they accomplish their goals – sometimes turning seventeen tricks in an hour. There is an unbelievable sense of camaraderie and mutual respect among the girls, but there is also a sadness and spiritual emptiness in them. The realization that Danielle and many of the others were hooked on dope and were working only to satisfy their drug habits had a profound impact on my life. This experience reaffirmed my disdain for all forms of drugs and is still with me, even today.
Filming took place at the Goldwyn Studios where the Les Halles district was reproduced on several sound stages. Controversy surrounded the filming as many of America’s more prudish interests feared the film would border on pornography and there was concern that it might not pass censorship. After all, this was the 60’s.
The picture was released in June of 1963 and proved to be as controversial as expected. In some quarters it was criticized for its boldness and in others chastised for not going far enough. Still the picture had a healthy domestic gross and I received my third Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. I lost to Patricia Neal and her performance in ‘Hud’, but I did win the Golden Globe. During the ceremonies I was accepting the award and telling the television audience how moved I was during my sojourn among the Parisian streetwalkers. Then I cracked a joke about how I had enjoyed my research so much that I nearly gave up acting. Well, it was funny to those in the house audience, but not considered at all humorous for television. They pulled the plug on me! Such was the hypocrisy of the ’60s.
Two For the Seesaw – United Artists 1962
The movie Two for the Seesaw was based on a successful Broadway play. It was written by William Gibson and had starred Henry Fonda and Ann Bancroft. The movie version was originally prepared as a vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, but when casting was impossible to arrange, I was signed to play Gittel Mosca, a Jewish girl from the Bronx who lives a lonely life in Greenwich Village. Producer Walter Mirisch considered several actors for the part of Jerry, including Henry Fonda whom they considered too old at the time. (This Hollywood age thing does affect men, too.) Others under consideration were Gregory Peck and William Holden, but Mirisch chose Robert Mitchum!
Life is full of little mysteries and Robert was one of them. I had always had a crush on this man and it began to surface when the cameras began to roll. At first it was the kidding between us that Robert Wise, the director, couldn’t stand. Wise often displayed his displeasure. But, this thing between Mitchum and I had started and it was too late to turn back. Mitchum, a gentle giant of a man who seemed to have no ambition, no dreams to fulfill and no drive to prove anything to anyone, fascinated me.
I loved working with Bob. He was considerate and kind. He was never late and he always knew his lines as well as the lines of the other actors. He smoked his cigarettes, drank anything he could pour, and judged scripts by how many days he would have off. Yet, I believe he really cared about his craft. And about me but was to embarrassed to let anyone know we had fun together. We had a way of telling jokes and laughing right up until the time Wise called action. We enjoyed making the sudden, one hundred eighty degree transition from the light side into the depth of emotion that was required in any particular scene. Wise couldn’t adjust that fast and as a result I think he felt somewhat isolated from the party. And what a party it was. It was the beginning of a three-year relationship.
The film got mixed critical notices, but it did respectable business. Two for the SeeSaw was the seventeenth film I had done in seven years with Hal Wallis. It would be my last picture under contract with Mr. Wallis. I was tired of being a slave. I bought out my contract and headed for freedom in the land of make believe… Hollywood.
My Geisha – Paramount 1962
After my battle with story line on The Children’s Hour, I was ready for a change of heart and My Geisha was tailor made for that change. It was produced by my husband, Steve Parker, filmed in Japan, featured my young daughter, Sachi in a small part and was in some respects, almost autobiographical. My Geisha is the story of an American movie star, Lucy Dell, whose husband Paul (Yves Montabond) is tired of his reputation as the director of his wife’s films. He goes to Japan, determined to make an avant-garde film of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, staring a young unknown Geisha.
What I thought would be a vacation with pay suddenly turned into a ritual study of the Geisha… not an easy task for a westerner. Although no westerner had ever been allowed to even enter the Geisha training school, I was granted permission to live with the Geishas for two weeks, learning the intricacies of the delicate tea ceremony, the Japanese dance and how to play the stringed instrument. I can remember the hardest part was the Japanese dance, an art so subtle that at times the movements were barely discernible.
Learning to act like a Geisha was easy for me, but what I had to go through to look like one – well, that was another matter. First, I had to wear contact lenses to change my eye color from blue to brown. Next, my eyes were pulled back with adhesive tape to form a slant and then I had to don a Zolb wig and 25 pound costume to complete the transition. At first the contact lenses made me feel sick to my stomach and once I fainted right off my chair and if wasn’t bad enough my heavy wig and costume caused me to slip a disc in my back. I had to wear a steel corset for four weeks. Attaching gauze, spirit gum and liquid adhesive to the corners of my eyes made them look slanted. Strings were then attached to the gauze and pulled tight around my head. I remember my temples getting so raw from ripping off the gauze that at the end of the picture they had to shoot me from the other side so that the red raw flesh wouldn’t show. Meanwhile the contact lenses were in my eyes grinding away, especially when – in the scene where I am singing on the hill – the smoke made my eyes tear and my throat burn.
My sojourn in Japan lasted seven months, although filming My Geisha was only ten weeks. I spent happy time with Steve and Sachi in this wonderful land of ancient enchantment until I had to return to Hollywood for the film Two for The Seesaw.
All In A Night’s Work – Paramount 1961
1961 proved to be an uneasy mix for my career and personal life. I had lost the Oscar for “The Apartment” but had won the British Academy Award and The Venice film festival designation as Best Actress. My husband, Steve Parker, was having tremendous success with an international tour of “Holiday in Japan,” which played over a three-year period in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and dozens of other American Cities.
I was still locked into Hal Wallis’s contract, which eliminated any artistic freedom for my choice of films and roles. With the exception of “The Apartment,” I continued to find myself starring in thin, sex-farce comedies. And “All In A Night’s Work” was no exception.
The only excitement from “All In A Night’s Work” was working with Dino once again. This was my fifth screen appearance with Dean Martin (“Artists And Models,” “Some Came Running,” “Career,” and “Oceans Eleven”) so Dino and I had become good friends and yes, I had a big crush on him as well. I would do a picture any time, any place with him. Films were fun with Dino. You were laughing and playing gin right until the camera rolled. There was only one Dino! God bless him.
While we were filming “All In A Night’s Work,” I developed a serious crush on Dean. By now I finally become a “girl” to him rather than a mascot. I didn’t know what to do about it. So, one night after work I stopped by his house to talk. I didn’t know what I was going to say when Jeanne, his wife, opened the door and ushered me into the living room where seven children who had just finished dinner were playing. It was mayhem. The air was thick with family interplay, as I waited on the couch while Jeanne called Dean.
He came down stairs, saw me, walked over, and embraced me. “Hi sweetheart” he said. “Wow. You came to see me? Hey kids, look who’s here. Well, sweetheart, how can I help you?” He looked into my eyes. I swallowed hard wondering if he knew what I was feeling, but the reality of what I was doing hit me full force and I responded in a truly mundane manner. “Oh, I just wanted to let you know how much I’ve enjoyed working with you. I think you are brilliant.” Dean held my hand and smiled “I feel the same about you, sweetheart. You’re the best.” I excused myself as gracefully as I could and left. I felt like an idiot. To this day I don’t know if he knew what was on my mind, but he will always hold a special place in my heart.
Can Can – 20th Century-Fox/1960
I had completed, Ask Any Girl at MGM and Career back at Paramount when I received a call from Frank Sinatra. “Hey kid, I want to do Can-Can. I like this! Do you like the music? Do you like Cole Porter? Do you want to dance”?
My response was, “Oh my God! Yes!”
What Frank didn’t know was that the night I replaced Carol Haney in Pajama Game on Broadway was the night I had planned on quitting the show. Carol’s record of durability was well known on Broadway and because of this I felt I would never get the opportunity for a starring role, so I had planned on going down to the Schubert theater that evening and applying as an understudy to Gwen Verdon. In fact, I had my notice in my pocket when I arrived at the theater and was informed that Carol had gone down due to an ankle injury and, as her understudy, I was immediately thrust into the starring role. I knew Can-Can front and backwards. I knew the Adam and Eve ballet, the French Lido numbers and I knew that there were two separate parts to the story, so Can-Can meant a lot to me.
“Oh my God, Frank! Yes. I will do it! How much time do we have to get ready? Two weeks, but what I want to do is play both parts”. “You got it kid”, Frank said. He immediately called up Buddy Addler, head of the studio and told him that I would do it, but they would have to combine the two parts for me. So the writers only had two weeks to get it together. I went into the rehearsal studio and it was pure murder trying to get back into shape.
Frank was a night person and would never shoot before noon, which was fine with me. (‘French hours’ is what they call that type of schedule.) It worked out well, except during the World Series when we would all sit around the set wondering where Frank was and then we would spot him on television sitting in box seats at the fall classic. Whatever Frank wanted, Frank got. When the series was over we worked on French hours… twelve noon to 7:30 PM, which was great because if afforded me a life outside films.
I introduced Frank to Juliet Prowse, a beautiful, tall and fabulous dancer from South Africa and watched that love affair blossom on set and pretty soon they were engaged. I had introduced Mike Todd to Elizabeth Taylor while filming Around The World In 80 Days and they were married. So as a ‘Matchmaker’ (pun intended) I was batting 500… Frank and Juliet never consummated their engagement through marriage.
Frank never rehearsed, never shot a scene twice and rarely ever did more than one or two takes. So you had to be prepared when you did a scene with Francis Albert Sinatra, otherwise you might only get one chance. But, Frank was fun – on and off the set.
During filming I chewed gum excessively and I was always searching for a place to put my gum before I did a scene. Frank had noticed this and said, “Hey kid, put it here behind my ear. It’ll help both of us”. Very few people knew that Frank had been a forceps baby and had a large graphic scar behind one ear and was subject to makeup before his close ups. So the gum would serve a dual purpose and nobody was any wiser.
Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev came on set with tons of bodyguards… his and ours and a slew of politicians, US officials and studio heads who had already ordered us to do an entire can-can number for these elite guests. There was only one problem. The costumes were genuine French velvet and weighed a ton. We had to do these splits, turns and jumps in one full take with no breaks in between. I thought I would die! I was sure my heart would give out, so I can easily say that it was indeed a work of will.
The film would receive world-wide publicity because of Khrushchev’s visit and the next day’s newspapers carried an interesting quote from him. When asked what he thought of Can-Can, he replied, “The face of humanity is prettier than it’s backside”. The press asked me what I thought of his comment and I said that I thought he was just jealous and mad because we were wearing panties.
Skouras was head of 20th Century Fox and he was honoring Khrushchev. Both were from the Ukraine and they got into a heated discussion as to who was the better Russian. Skouras stood up and said, “I am a Russian from the Greek sector and I came to this wonderful country and I am head of a major film studio”. Khrushchev retaliated by saying, “Look at me. I’m from the Ukraine and I am head of a wonderful country”.
I liked Khrushchev and apparently the feeling was mutual, because right after I finished my next film, The Apartment, I was having lunch at Sardi’s in New York and he was there, also. He sent a note to my table that read, “I have seen The Apartment and you have improved”.
Ocean’s Eleven Warner Bros 1960
Frank called me one day and said that he and his pack were doing a picture in Las Vegas and they wanted me to play a bit part of an inebriated New Year’s Eve celebrant. The abbreviated part would pay no money, and I would have no billing… but they would give me a new car for less than five minutes of work.
I was making The Apartment for Billy Wilder at the time. So I took a brief break, long enough to fly to Vegas to do the cameo, not for the car, but to be with old friends, Frank, Dean and Sammy. It was also a chance to catch their ongoing show at the Sands Hotel. This was always the hottest show in town and it changed every night because they were all masters of improvisation. Not only did they improvise their stage show night after night, but they also daily improvised most of the filming script.
Their energy and stamina was uncanny. While shooting Ocean’s Eleven, they were also doing two shows a night at the Sands and partying and playing gin. How they managed all of this is still a mystery to me, even though I was a part of it and could keep up with their hectic pace. These great talents thrived and manifested all that intense creativity with only a few hours of sleep. This schedule continued during the entire filming of Ocean’s Eleven. Their work ethics were honorable and dedicated and – somehow – they pulled it off, not only the film but the Las Vegas shows as well. The excitement and fun came off the set… but that’s another story.
The Apartment – United Artists 1960
We started filming The Apartment with twenty-nine pages of script and Jack Lemmon and I had no idea how the film would end and neither did Billy Wilder, the director. So he just watched our relationship to see how the chemistry would evolve. Everything was evolving. At the time I was hanging with Frank and Dean, learning how to play gin Rummy. (That’s why the gin game is in the apartment.)
Billy Wilder was such a fabulous writer/director that the studio just financed the film without knowing what he would do, but they did know his reputation of creating great films and the studios knew their investment was secure. Billy could do a film on the phone book and studios and actors would stand in line to be part of the project.
The Apartment was great… a wonderful shoot and it was one of the first pictures where we mixed comedy and drama together. And many of the people at the screening seemed confused as to whether it was comedy or drama. I remember Marilyn Monroe was at the screening. She had no makeup on and was wrapped up in a mink coat. In her low whispery voice she said… “The picture is a wonderful examination of the corporate world.” My mouth flew open! She got it!
Jack Lemmon was terrific and such a nice guy. And Jack was a pro in every theatrical sense of the word. Billy was in love with Jack’s talent. The chemistry between the two was a joy to watch. In fact it was such a wonderful experience that I would come to the set on my days off just observe two masters at work. Billy would have Jack do ten, twelve, seventeen takes of a scene to just watch him improve each scene. But in the process of this character development Billy couldn’t decide whether to let Jack just be brilliant or whether to control him.
We shot the film at United Artists, which is where I made a string of hits including Irma and The Children’s Hour. One day we were at lunch in the commissary and I was depressed about something. Billy and Jack were at my table, when I blurted out, “Why do people have to be in love with people anyway?” “That’s it! That’s it!” Billy yelled. He got up from the table and went back to the set and rebuilt it with that commissary scene.
Billy Wilder would never shoot a master shot. We never had a rehearsal with a master shot. So we never knew what we were actually doing. For a close up he would say, “Be upset.” If you asked, “Why am I upset Billy?” he would say “Because that’s what I want”.
In the scene from The Apartment, where Jack socks the guy… the brother, to get the shock on my face he cracked a 2 x 4 piece of wood, which startled me and gave Billy the shot he wanted.
Working with Billy was like one long ten-week lesson… and apparently it paid off for me, because I received my second Academy Award nomination, for Best Actress of 1960. I lost to Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8. The Apartment won best picture.
Working with Jack was “magic time”. His staring power was more and more evident as his career grew. He has left us a legacy of supreme humor, drama and talent, which we will be forever grateful. His genius was so riveting that even today I can close my eyes and be reminded yet again that he is the master of magic himself and a real friend throughout all time.
Thank you Jack. We will miss you.
Some Came Running – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/1958
Frank Sinatra had seen me do a television special with Gizelle McKensie and Pat Boone and he said, “I want that girl.” Frank wanted me, because they couldn’t get Shelly Winters… so, I went up and met Frank at his house on Beaumont Drive. I was nervous when I rang the bell, terrified, when I heard his recorded message from the gate speaker.
“You better have a goddamned good reason for being here.”
His house was decorated all in Japanese and he was a gracious host spending hours talking about this new film, which was based on the novel by James Jones that would be directed by Vincent Minnelli. They were already in production and I was asked to report on location to Madison, Indiana as soon as possible.
Upon learning that I had landed the role of Ginny Moorhead, I immediately went to a specialty store and had a stuffed toy dog made, which I would use as a prop for the role.
I boarded a bus for Madison and arrived on location completely in character. Frank saw me get off the bus and just fell down laughing, “That’s Ginny,” he said.
Before long, Frank, Dean and I started hanging out together. It was great to renew my friendship with Dean Martin after Artists and Models. He was more relaxed and in good spirits and fun to be with and, in my opinion, his role as Bama in Some Came Running was the best acting of his very talented, very lengthy career.
I stayed at a hotel, which was adjacent to the house that had been rented for Dean and Frank. I was the only woman in the cast or crew that was allowed into that house. I was fortunate to spend considerable time in their private world, tidying up for them, arranging flowers and making the place livable. All they did is play gin rummy and entertain ‘friends’.
There was always some guy from the mob there. That’s where I met Sam Giancana. We played gin together and he would always cheat by looking at the reflection of my cards in my reading glasses to see what cards I held in my hand.
The people of Madison surrounded the house night and day, sometimes four abreast, hoping and waiting to see these male movie idols. We had to keep the curtains drawn for privacy and that soon started to wear on all of us. It was like living in a tomb! It became a surreal experience as women would break through the police barricade, enter the house and target Frank and Dean, ripping at their clothes. What most men would dream of happening to them, Frank detested. He had a fetish about personal cleanliness, sometimes showering five or six times a day, and after a close encounter with an over active female admirer he would head for the shower.
Frank had some serious issues with the director, Vincent Minnelli. One day, while we were shooting the Ferris wheel scene where key dialogue and action would take place, his anger boiled over into a bitter confrontation. Vincent did not like the camera angle and instead of moving the camera for a better angle he insisted that this huge Ferris wheel be dismantled and moved which would have meant several days in lost time. Frank blew up and said “F… you!”
He got into his limo and said to Dean, “Dago, get in. We are going back to L.A.” And off they went! Sol Siegle, head of the studio, finally convinced them to return.
In the original James Jones book, Some Came Running, the Dave character played by Sinatra gets killed at the end, but Frank went to Vincent and said, “Look, I want the kid to get killed, she’ll get an Oscar nomination. I don’t care about my role. Let the kid get killed.” Whatever Frank wanted, Frank got. So, Ginny took the bullet instead of Dave and I got an Oscar nomination because of Frank’s generosity.
The film was a major success for all. It made more than four million dollars in the United States alone. It was the turning point in my film career, bringing me my first Oscar nomination for best actress. I didn’t win (Susan Hayward did for I Want To Live), but what a thrill.
The Matchmaker – Paramount/1958
1958 was a very busy year for me, as I went from drama in Hot Spell with the Broadway great, Shirley Booth and the premier director, Daniel Mann to the comedy-drama The Sheepman and back again with Shirley Booth, Tony Perkins and Robert Morse in The Matchmaker.
Once again, I had the privilege of working with Shirley Booth and a wonderful new actor named, Tony Perkins. Shirley Booth was a genuine person and I loved to watch her work with the props. Tony Perkins was a prissy type guy and became the butt of a lot of jokes, because at the time no one knew he was gay, so he was trying desperately to cover it up and in doing so, the true feelings that he had about himself and life in general were very confused. Robert Morse on the other hand was outgoing, confident and zany in nature. He would get drunk and then dive, fully clothed into the shallow side of the pool, all the time laughing and fully aware that he was wonderfully crazy!
The Sheepman – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/1958
The Sheepman was the first film I had done off of the Paramount lot and I was nervous about the western, which was starring, World War II Marine and tough guy, Glenn Ford. I was the only gal in the film and I arrived on set in immaculate cowgirl togs and immediately was met by the films director, George Marshall who threw a couple fistfuls of dirt over my new clothes. In the first minute all of them [the cast] knocked me down, rolled me in the dirt and said, ‘O.K., now you can play a western.’ A moment later I doused my tormentors with a bucket of water and asked them if they would like to cool off and from that time on they knew that I wasn’t a prima donna and everyone could relax on the set and be themselves. And boy did they ever! Marshall and my co-stars, their language, oh golly!
I learned how to rope and ride a horse on this picture and my role of the hard-boiled cowgirl was the real me. Or at least the way I dressed in this western was me, when at home away from the prying eyes of the media. I loved jeans and sloppy old clothes.
I learned about superstition and haunted houses from Glenn Ford. Glenn had a superstitious ritual that he performed during the first day of shooting on every western, he would take off his trademark cowboy hat and place it under his horse and if the horse peed on the hat, then he considered this a good omen and good luck for the film.
The Sheepman turned out to be pretty good! The New York Times said, “The Sheepman treats the standard rivalry between cattlemen and sheepmen with humor and a certain amount of spoof.” So I guess the horse came through!
Glenn was married to Eleanor Powell and told me many stories about the haunted house they lived in that used to belong to Rudy Valentino. He swore that Valentino’s ghost was still in that house, as furniture was constantly being moved around in certain rooms of the mansion. Both by day and night this phenomenon would occur.
Once they came home from a late night party with friends to find their living room in disarray. At first, they thought they had been burglarized, but nothing was missing. Since nothing had been taken they assumed it was a prankster, until one evening after they had retired they heard a loud noise downstairs and rushed in to find chairs and sofas in odd arrangements that defied common logic. And of course no one was in the house except them. So, Glenn if you read this, know that you were partially responsible for my early learning experience in the fuzzy world of paranormal.
Around the World in 80 Days – United Artists/1956
I sat across a huge mahogany desk from a loud-mouthed, adorable man. His cigar was longer than he was, and he spoke on five phones at once. He was a five-foot-five concentration of human spark and his name was Mike Todd.
“Listen kid, I’m makin’ this picture and Merle Oberon cain’t do it. She’s too old, and besides I want you to do it, to play a campy Hindu princess, okay?”
“A Hindu princess with red hair and freckles?”
“I said campy didn’t I?”
On the way out I asked Mike Todd if he was certain he wanted a Scotch-Irish Hindu. His reply was:
“Well, the highest class Hindu’s look like you and besides everybody’s just people. You’re married to a Scotch-Irish Jap aren’t you? And if I come over to Japan, I’ll be a joop. That’s Japanese for Jew. Now, get over to Western Costume and have Irene dress you and dye your hair, you’re due in Durango tonight to join the crew.”
I arrived in Durango, Colorado, dressed in a sari with black hair and a bewildered look. Meeting me at the airport was the British aristocrat-actor, David Niven who almost died when he laid eyes on me, because his feelings were that princess Aouda should be authentic, not campy. We didn’t get off to a good start. He didn’t treat me very well because he thought that I was miscast. I didn’t like David on that movie. He was snotty.
Cantinflas, the great Mexican actor/comic who played Passepartout was a terrific man. He not only was a great actor and comic but a humanitarian as well. He donated large sums of money and time to the many orphanages in Mexico for underprivileged children.
Bobby Newton, who played Inspector Fix and used to stash all of his scotch in his walking stick, was adorable. But, none could top the producer, Mike Todd, in originality and craziness. Once we moved our location to San Diego, he would stand on the bridge of our ship tossing expensive anchovies and appetizers into the air and yelling, “Where are my birds, my Siegels, my Jewish birds”, as the sea gulls dived for the food.
Marlene Dietrich became my friend and mentor. She taught me many things about lighting myself on camera – key light low and camera high for us girls, with just the opposite for men. Marlene only wore wigs because she had thin hair. She owned a thin gold chain that was an instant face-lift. Sidney Gillaroff, the great artist of hair, used to make real tight pin curls. Marlene’s gold chain had a hook on it and Sidney would loop in a hairpin, taking one end of the chain and pull it real tight to the other side. The results were the tightening of the facial muscles and skin. That’s why everyone thought she was one of the first to use cosmetic surgery – but it was the gold chain. It was an au natural face-lift. Of course, those of us who tried the gold chain… we all had terrible headaches by lunch.
At 7:00 AM we would all arrive at the makeup trailer. Gene Simmons, Kathryn Crosby, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene and the rest of us all sitting there, waiting for Sydney to do his magic. Elizabeth would normally be made up the night before, because she always slept late in the morning. She would sleep on one of those Japanese neck blocks to keep her hair in place, and then come right to the set.
These were interesting times in the movies and on this picture there was never a dull moment. Mike Todd who was rooming with Evelyn Keys, moved Evelyn out and Marlene in. Pending labor strikes were averted at the last moment. On location in Japan a wave washed the key camera overboard.
The main reason I accepted this roll is because filming would take me to Japan and I would have the chance to spend cherished time with my husband, Steve, in the land that he lived in and loved. So, despite the little annoyances, a wonderful thing happened: I became pregnant.
Artists and Models – Paramount 1955
Arriving in Hollywood to finish The Trouble With Harry, I bought a second-hand green Buick for forty five dollars on credit, and headed for the beach at Malibu. I leased a tiny one-bedroom apartment set on high pilings that shook with each wave that crashed beneath it.
All my money had been spent in New York, paying off debts and my trip to the land of make-believe.
To make matters worse when The Trouble With Harry was released it was an artistic success, subtle in its humor, but not commercial. I faired slightly better in the reviews. I was hailed as the kooky young discovery or the kooky young star. For the fan magazines and gossip columnists, I was fresh copy.
“She lives in a one room shack at the beach. She doesn’t own a formal dress or a piece of fur. Sometimes the cop at the gate turns her away in the morning, saying ‘the casting calls are filled for the day’.”
But, nothing could have been worse than my first film under contract to Hal Wallis. I was to be the little girl who ran up the stairs in a little sun suit, or a bat suit, while Jerry Lewis chased me.
The film, Artists and Models, with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis became a learning experience – not about acting – but about life and two human beings much different than how they presented themselves to be in those zany comedies. In private Dean was the funny one. Jerry was a mechanical genius whose state of the art electronics filled his dressing room.
When Dean and Jerry entered the studio commissary, a mundane lunch break became sheer chaos. They started food fights with actors, cast and crew. Once Marlene Dietrich was the ungrateful recipient of a lunch plate. One day, they walked in and cut off the ties of the studio heads and smeared butter on their faces. When they were around it was pure bedlam and everyone laughed until they cried at the crazy antics of America’s favorite comics.
I came to understand what technique was about in terms of straight man versus comic. I could see the importance of leaving talented people alone; leaving the talent unbridled to seek its own level of brilliance. Stars like Dean and Jerry were very sensitive to little things and I learned what artistic temperament was all about.
When they weren’t performing, the tension around the set was awful. I didn’t know what was going on in their lives or what the change was about, but I could sense that something was winding down in that great partnership. After Artists and Models they did one more film together. Hollywood or Bust was their last picture together.
This film introduced me to Dean Martin. We went on to make five movies together and he became the leading man that I appeared with most. He became my lifelong friend and protector.
The Trouble with Harry – Paramount 1955
“My first film”
When my parents enrolled me in dancing classes to strengthen my weak ankles they had no idea I would learn to dance and eventually become a chorus girl and understudy to Carol Haney in the Broadway musical, The Pajama Game. Carol had a reputation for going on no matter what, but she had weak ankles and sprained one very badly. I was thrust into her role in the play. I never understood, or for that matter, thought much about the ankle karma. But that was how I became a star.
Unknown to me, there were two men in the audience of that Pajama Game performance that would change my life forever. Hal Wallis, the Hollywood producer who discovered Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Doc Ericson, a representative for the legendary director, Alfred Hitchcock.
Here I was, a nineteen year old chorus girl, with no acting experience. Hitchcock put me in a room with Mildred Natwick, Edmund Gwenn and John Forsythe. These were the premiere actors on Broadway and now were my co-stars. We were together during the first reading and having no previous experience, I just read it instinctively. When we were finished, Hitch, in his quirky sense of humor, said, “You have the guts of a bank robber.” Because of Hitch’s reputation, I knew I had the job!
I was scared, but curious, and yearned for the learning experience as I joined the film crew in Vermont. I have fond memories of all the cast. In the beginning John Forsythe tolerated me as an amateur, but then realized I had an instinct for acting and started to appreciate this gift. I learned so much from all of them.
Hitchcock was a connoisseur of food and had great knowledge in this area. We shot in Vermont because the hotel we stayed in, The Lodge, was famous for the best food in Stowe, Vermont. He liked the leaves of Vermont, but he really appreciated the food. There was always plenty on the set and I ate all of it because it was free. In my days as a chorus girl I hadn’t had much to eat. I existed on graham crackers and peanut butter. When I began the picture I was svelte and lithe, but by the time I buried Harry for the last time, the head of the studio called me… I think the word was blimp.
Hitch had a mind-tease code that kept you alert. One morning he came waddling toward me, eyes twinkling, roly-poly stomach well out in the lead.
“Pleasant period following death.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Genuine chopper, old girl, genuine chopper.”
“And after your first line – dog’s feet.”
Finally, Hitch explained his version of cockney rhyming slang:
Good mourning. (Pleasant period following death)
Real-Axe. (Genuine chopper)
After you start your first line, paws. (Dog’s feet)
What a mind. I have the greatest appreciation for this mystery meister who gave me the freedom of artistic expression, to seek and learn from some of the best. Hitch, wherever you are, I love you and will see you again…