Friday, February 22

Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee

Thanks to the Grease song, Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee, she may stay in the public consciousness or at least cause some young person to ask who is Sandra Dee?  They would then be told that for a time in the late fifties and the first part of the sixties, she was a teenage movie phenomenon.  While no one would ever confuse her with a young Kate Hepburn, she made some very popular movies, was on every movie magazine cover for years and married a popular singer which escalated her fame even more.

That earnest, wholesome, well-scrubbed, immaculately coiffed young teenage girl type didn't usually make my veins pop, but I confess to being immensely drawn to a down-home innocence and sometimes startling beauty but always a puff of an adorable, blonde dream.  I saw every film she ever made.  And while her films were generally popular, that doesn't mean they were all that good. 

She was under contract to Universal Studios at the tail end of those times when studios had a large contract roster.  That means that she was carefully groomed, she did as she was told, and we were all hoodwinked to a large degree.  The person you saw up there on that big screen through that frosted lens often bore little resemblance to the real person.

Let's start with her real name... Alexandra Zuck.  Can you imagine that up there on the screen?  Her birth date was an invention, too.  It was always said she was born in 1942 when, in fact, it was two years later.  It was not known for some time that she was sexually abused by a stepfather or that she suffered from eating disorders.  We did know that she was unusually close to her mother but I suspect their relationship was not all that healthy primarily because the mother never let her get too far away or ever truly grow up.  One day they may do a movie devoted to her life because while it is an interesting life, after she left films (far too soon), it was a very sad life.  Look at her... poor Sandra Dee.

She was born in New Jersey and was modeling by the age of four.  Some gigs on television got the attention of Hollywood execs and she was quickly on her way to film stardom.

In 1957 she was the youngest sister to Jean Simmons, Joan Fontaine and Piper Laurie in Until They Sail, about life in New Zealand during WWII.  I don't think it did much for anyone's career, despite Paul Newman's presence, but I quite like it.

With John Saxon & the Harrisons

I absolutely loved her next film, The Reluctant Debutante, playing the daughter of real-life marrieds Rex Harrision and Kay Kendall.  There are some genuinely funny moments (particularly from Kendall) resulting from a Brit's American daughter coming to England, meeting her stepmother and getting involved in one of those fussy coming-out balls the Brits are so fond of.  It would be the first of three pairings with handsome John Saxon.  She would be with him again in their next film, The Restless Years, a teenagers-in-love story.

The following year, 1959, would be her watershed year.  Three of the five films she made this year are the reason the name Sandra Dee made the big noise it did.  If one thinks Gidget by today's standards it's just about the silliest excuse for a movie, know that we all thought so at the time of its release.  But somehow the story of a geeky young girl who become the mascot of a gaggle of grody, horny surfers caught on with the public.  Handsome James Darren singing the title tune to Dee was dreamy.  Sigh.  The subsequent series of Gidget films to follow were without Dee.

Next up was Imitation of Life, famed as a mother-daughter tearjerker and the first of two teamings with Lana Turner and the first of three pairings with suave John Gavin.  It was an enormous success for all concerned.  This film marked the first time Dee would work for producer Ross Hunter.  He showcased her beautifully and in that sense she shone brightly.  But his usual good-looking and vacuous films really did nothing to allow Dee to show any real flair for acting.   She had a great gift for Technicolor fluff. 

with Troy Donahue

My favorite of all her films, A Summer Place, paired her with another up and coming Hollywood hunk, Troy Donahue, and you could not pass a magazine rack without seeing the face of Sandra Dee (often with Donahue).  The story involved a spunky, young love match played against the background of their parents' adultery.  A monster hit of a title song didn't hurt either.

Her other two 1959 films, an Audie Murphy western called The Wild and the Innocent and Stranger in My Arms with Jeff Chandler and June Allyson, went nowhere and did nothing for her career.  Of course, I liked them both.

The sixties started with Portrait in Black, again with Turner and Saxon, a tale of murder and adultery among rich San Franciscans.  It was no great splash but let's take a note that I quite liked it, too. 

Mr and Mrs Darin

In 1961 she made a film that would figure more prominently in her private life because she met singer Bobby Darin.  It was called Come September and starred Rock Hudson amd Gina Lollobrigida.  It was a notch above the romantic comedy drek both Dee and Hudson would soon be starring in with reckless abandon.  It wasn't long at all before Dee and Darin were married.  They did two more films together (If A Man Answers and That Funny Feeling), both marginally registering on the radar.  Though new to the movies Darin instinctively realized her kind of films were not for him.  He wanted gutsier parts, something that challenged him.  Dee, it has been said, would have remained forever covered in the romantic haze of Ross Hunter.  The remainder of her movies were beneath her. They weren't even good fluff.

Darin and Dee were married in 1961 and divorced six years later.  I always suspected he talked down to her and like most musicians eventually learned he enjoyed the company of his musician friends more than hers.  She was always besotted with him and fell apart after their divorce.  She basically stopped working, holed up in her home, drank to excess and usually saw few people except her son by Darin.  Her weakened and depressed condition suffered even more so after Darin's death in 1973 and then again after her mother died in 1987.

Most of us hadn't heard of her in years when in March 1991 she appeared on the cover of People Magazine.  I was shocked at seeing her and equally surprised that she looked as beautiful as she ever did.  This was the face of a serious drinker?  Not to me.  The article appeared honest in its detailing all I have done here but even more intimately.  It seemed hopeful that we might see more of her in some way.  It turned out she did some plays, costarring at one time or another with old buddies Darren and Saxon, and she did some TV talk shows.  For those who might be interested, check out Dee's appearance on the Sally Jessy Raphael Show on YouTube.

We still didn't see or hear much of her in her remaining years, which were apparently plagued with more illness and finally, this month in 1991, she passed away of kidney disease.  She was 61.

I noticed in her obituaries and tributes that she was said to be Bobby Darin's widow and I have read that many times since.  I suspect it was something she perpetuated in some way.  She couldn't be his wife so at least she could be his widow.  But the fact is not only were they divorced, but Darin had remarried and was so at the time of his early death.

In addition to the wonderful Sally Jessy Raphael piece, there is a loving book on her and Darin written by their son Dodd called Dream Lovers.  Recommended reading.  And in 1994 Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth played Darin and Dee in Beyond the Sea.

I was looking at you, Sandra Dee... from the start to the finish and frankly, I always liked what I saw.  She was usually a bit too earnest and enthusiastic in her acting.  Hey, I may have even learned gushing from her.  But in teenage years we all need our heroes and sometimes someone to obsess over.  She did make some damned fun movies in the beginning.  When she dropped out and became so entangled with her personal demons and health issues, I kind of suffered with her.  After all, she was of my time.  She seemed more like a pal to me than a movie star.  In the throes of some of my teenage angst, I felt gratitude that I could go sit in a darkened movie theater and look at Sandra Dee.  Hey, Sandy, it's me.

Coming in March 

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