Tuesday, September 30

From 20th Century Fox

Just for a sense of fair play, instead of showcasing three actors from 20th Century Fox in the 1960s, here are three actresses.  They were all talented ladies but for various reasons, they never quite made it to the top.  You baby boomers and older should have little trouble remembering them or some of their work.  Let's meet them again.

Ina Balin, the raven-haired, Brooklyn-born actress who made just a few films before embarking on a television career, came from a show business family.  Her father was a singer/dancer/comedian who worked the Borscht Belt for a time and her Hungarian-born mother was a dancer.  Ina knew she wanted to be an actress from a very early age.  

While majoring in theater at New York University, she appeared on a Perry Como television show and did summer stock.  Her own stock was soaring enough that she won the ingenue role in the Broadway production of Compulsion and then went into A Majority of One, which won her some awards.  Film producer Carlo Ponti discovered her in Compulsion and signed Balin for a role in his production of Black Orchid (1958).

In Orchid she played the grown daughter of Anthony Quinn who is opposed to his marriage to Sophia Loren.  It was a dreary piece and wasn't an auspicious film debut for Balin.  Two years later she was most impressive as the other woman in Paul Newman's loveless marriage to Joanne Woodward in From the Terrace.  In 1961 she appeared as Ben Gazzara's love interest and nurse in The Young Doctors.  It was a good film that did mediocre business.

That same year she appeared in arguably her most famous role, as the fiery daughter of a Mexican bandit in The Comancheros alongside John Wayne and Stuart Whitman.  She would appear in films with Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley, not exactly what one does when one wants to be taken seriously.  While she could look as sweet and demure as they come, I suspect that fiery temperament got her in trouble at Fox and they lost interest in her.  For the remainder of her life, she would appear mainly on television.

In 1966 she made the first of many trips to Vietnam and the plight of the children there touched her greatly and she aided in the evacuation of orphans from Saigon.  That event was transferred into the excellent television movie, The Children of An Lac (1980).  Although she never married, she adopted three Vietnamese girls. 

Her legacy is not her film career but rather her humanitarian efforts.  She died at age 52 in 1990 from pulmonary hypertension due to a steady deterioration of the lungs.  She had been on the waiting list for a lung transplant.

Diane Varsi struggled with Hollywood.  She knew she never really fit in and after a brief time of basking in the limelight, Hollywood knew it, too.  She walked out on her contract with Fox, didn't work again until it expired and when she sought a comeback and presumably forgiveness, Hollywood said no thanks.

Born in 1938 in a San Francisco suburb to a florist, the ultra sensitive girl was labeled an oddball and a weirdo from as early as she could remember.  Always rebellious, she dropped out of school at 15 and worked at becoming a folk singer.  After a spiritual sojourn to Mexico, she hitchhiked to L.A. and took up the drums in a small band.  She dabbled in writing poetry and dancing.  She joined actor Jeff Corey's acting workshop.

It was through Corey that she came to the attention of director Mark Robson who was putting together the highly-anticipated production of Grace Metalious' scorching best-seller, Peyton Place (1957).  Over Fox's objections, Robson hired Varsi for the key role of Allison MacKenzie.  It was a glorious beginning particularly after she was nominated for a supporting Oscar for the role.

Fox now took notice of her and put her under contract, perhaps haltingly.  Her pains with celebrity were already showing despite being assigned to three prestigious productions.  Along with Don Murray, she made a quite good western, From Hell to Texas (1958) and as Gary Cooper's spunky daughter in 10 North Frederick.  I had liked all of her first three films and had started to take note of her. 
But during the last film, she had a nervous breakdown.  It made the papers.  I'm still trying to find myself, she said.  It's hard for me to separate illusion from reality.

She recovered enough to make Compulsion (1959), a fictional accounting of the Loeb & Leopold thrill-killing trial, an excellent film that had her in the same ingenue role that Ina Balin had on Broadway.  Then she buckled.  She and Fox were at odds because she declined most of the films they offered her.  I'm running away from destruction, she claimed, as she walked out on her contract and left for the East Coast.

In 1968 she returned to make the pop-favorite, Wild in the Streets, teamed with the equally-rebellious Christopher Jones.  What a pair they made.  Two years later she played the hooker-girlfriend of one of Shelley Winters' sons in Bloody Mama and then made what she called her favorite film, the anti-war drama, Johnny Got His Gun (1972).  None were mainstream films.

She only worked sporadically and her career never recovered.  She had Lyme disease for several years when she died of respiratory failure in 1992.

Dana Wynter, like the other two here, probably didn't have the movie career that she deserved.  Fox didn't quite know what to do with any of these actresses.  Wynter didn't squander her opportunities as Varsi did and she had more opportunities than Balin but still, it didn't work out as I'm sure she wished it had.

I regarded her as most of the public did... demure, soft-spoken, beautiful... rather like the proverbial English rose. She was, in fact, English, although born in Berlin in 1931 to a prominent surgeon.  Like Ina Balin, Wynter's mother was Hungarian.  Wynter resided in England until she was 16 and then moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where she took up dramatics in school but with plans to study medicine.  She did that for a year and then made the decision to instead become an actress.

She was appearing in a play in England and a few English movies when an American agent said he wanted to represent her and relocate her to New York.  It happened as planned and soon she was appearing in a number of important television shows.  It was inevitable that those nosy Fox talent scouts were about and it was off to Hollywood.

She started with The View from Pompey's Head (1955), as Cameron Mitchell's wife and Richard Egan's lover, a decent film about racial prejudice (a subject near and dear Wynter's heart.)  Then she was loaned out (already an indicator that Fox either didn't know what to do with her and/or had nothing lined up) for her best-remembered role, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in a delicious role opposite Kevin McCarthy.  If the studio had now wanted to cash in on her new fame, they certainly didn't act upon it.

The same year she was the love interest (and little more) of Robert Taylor and Richard Todd in D-Day, the 6th of June, a good war film.  Something of Value (1957) took her back to Africa with Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier in tow for a dramatic rendering of the Mau Mau uprising.  She was the girl

Her best professional year came in 1958 when Fox assigned her two good roles. The first was in Fräulein, top-billed as a German reluctantly hiding American soldier, Mel Ferrer, at her father's request, during WWII.  Then came the role that shows off her best acting as the alcoholic tramp first wife of Bradford Dillman in In Love and War.  While I am not complaining, she was always a bit reserved in her acting, but in this film she was allowed to cut loose and really make something of the part.

Her last good film during her early career was 1959s Shake Hands with the Devil, starring James Cagney and Don Murray.  It was a film that acquainted her with Ireland, a country she would ultimately live in for many years.  From here on, for whatever reason, her film career somewhat evaporated, certainly appearances in top movies did.  She returned mainly to television.  She popped up in 1970 in the all-star Airport as the pissed-off wife of Burt Lancaster.

She was married for 25 years to handsome Hollywood celebrity attorney, Greg Bautzer.  In her mid years she became a passionate advocate against apartheid.  Dana (pronounced Donna) died in 2011 in Ojai, California, from congestive heart failure.

Movie Review

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for Ina Balin. I always liked her soft beauty and I think she had talent, too. But my biggest THANK YOU is for Dana Wynter. I almost forgotten her and forgotten that she was one of my favorite one. She had beauty, class and talent. but she did not make it. I think that movie world is really peculiar sometimes. What else. I should spend a few words for Diane Varsi, too, but to be honest I never loved her. Did Lee Reemik belong to FOX, too?I should know it but I'm getting old: my brain is getting rusty. OK thanks a lot again. Carlo