Tuesday, January 5, 2010

I'm a Friend of Dorothy!

Well, yeah, I should think by now it’s rather obvious that I am a friend of Dorothy in the slang sense. However, I am also, while not a personal friend, enamored of one of Hollywood’s Oscar-winning actresses, Miss Dorothy Malone.

Malone (born Dorothy Maloney in Chicago in 1925) began her film career in 1942, playing bit parts, small roles, walk-ons and the like, with her natural deep brunette hair color. She caught a break in 1946’s Humphrey Bogart film The Big Sleep, playing a suspicious-acting bookstore proprietress. That same year, she had a song in the fictionalized Cole Porter bio film Night and Day, starring Cary Grant.

She continued to work as the second female lead or as part of an ensemble in various inconsequential films, with occasional leading lady parts as in the Randolph Scott western The Nevadan. With each successive movie, she gained experience that would expand her talent and prepare her for the future.

Westerns were the rage as she entered the period of her career in which she would see decent billing and she always did her fair share of them. She appeared in many other lesser-known films, always busy, and her work in these pictures generally stands out as very appealing when viewed now.

In 1954, she colored her hair blonde in order to portray Doris Day’s sister in Young at Heart and it seemed to breathe new life into her and her career. Though she would revert to brunette for the sprawling war romance Battle Cry (in which she got to canoodle with Tab Hunter), she would remain a blonde for the bulk of the rest of her career.

Still, she continued to toil in westerns and low-budget flicks that did little, if anything, to enhance her standing in the industry. She made, in 1955, what would become a legendary cult classic as she portrayed one of several (!) love interests for Liberace in Sincerely Yours. The film was such a flop that Warner Brothers paid Lee his salary for an intended second movie, but skipped making the movie entirely!

At that time, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were a hot comedy team and she found herself (along with Shirley MacLaine) playing along in Artists and Models. The wacky, fanciful film is considered by many Martin & Lewis fans to be one of their best and it was a success at the box office.

In the mid-50s it was westerns, westerns, westerns as she worked with Fred MacMurray, Richard Egan and Jeff Chandler. At least the budgets were increasing when it came to some of them, such as the expansive Pillars of the Sky. Having worked with MacMurray in Pushover and At Gunpoint, she later accepted a role in Quantez opposite him. At one point, one of them asked the other how in the world they had wound up in the movie and the other replied that they’d done it just to work together again. This was the reason the other performer had accepted as well!

Everything changed, however, in 1956 when Malone was given her role in Written on the Wind. Directed by Douglas Sirk, a man whose films were considered solid, if unimportant, entertainment in their day, but, which, are now praised for their artistry, innovativeness and symbolism, Malone wisely embraced the secondary female part (Lauren Bacall was higher billed) and ran with it.

As Marylee Hadley, Malone portrayed the wild, nymphomaniac daughter of an oil magnate. Her brother, played by Robert Stack, was a drunk and a repressed homosexual whose wife (Bacall) had suppressed feelings for his best friend Rock Hudson. Eventually, a killing occurs as a result of all the angst. It was a vivid, tastefully lurid film with fever-pitched emotion and plenty of color, drama and flavorful music. The zesty, overwrought situations of the film (which were loosely based on a situation in torch singer Libby Holman’s life) inspired later primetime TV soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty with their family traumas and oil backgrounds. Malone even sports a wide-brimmed hat in a key courtroom scene the way Joan Collins would decades later.

Aside from (and likely due to) her own longing for Hudson’s character, Malone’s Marylee could be found with any and all men in the town and, in an act of defiance against her father, did a frantic Latin dance in her room with the record blaring, leading to tragedy. This, along with other manipulative and frank moments in the film, led to her being nominated for and winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress!

Now, having won the top honor of her profession, Malone began winning even more challenging and important parts and became a top-billed star in her own right. She played the bitter, selfish wife of James Cagney in the Lon Chaney bio-pic Man of a Thousand Faces, acted as Robert Stack’s weary, emotionally wounded spouse in The Tarnished Angels and finally won her own vehicle in Too Much, Too Soon, an adaptation of Diana Barrymore’s autobiography.

Diana Barrymore was the troubled daughter of acting legend John Barrymore and she had been thrust into the cinema limelight as a young girl only to find herself (in her own words) “a has been at age 23.” Following years of bad relationships and alcoholism, she was dead at 38. The film version of her story was cleaned up significantly and gave only a surface account of her life. Malone didn’t get the career mileage out of the role that it seemed to have promised.

In 1960, she was re-teamed with Robert Stack for a third time in The Last Voyage, about a devoted couple and their young daughter who are on board a luxury cruise which suffers from an explosion and begins to sink. Trouble is, Malone is trapped under some heavy debris and Stack must race against the clock to save her. It’s an intense and surprisingly gritty (for its time) little drama and she is excellent in her role. It is primarily for this and her iconic part in Written on the Wind that she is held in high esteem in The Underworld.

Next up, she was costarring with Rock Hudson for a third time in The Last Sunset, a western, which also starred Kirk Douglas and, as Malone’s teen daughter, Carol Lynley. Malone was mostly given the duty of fretting over the possible sexual relationship between Douglas and Lynley in this unusual film that Leonard Malton dubbed “Strange on the Range.”

TV (including a guest spot on Stack’s series The Untouchables) became more prominent in Malone’s career after this and with a film like Beach Party in 1963 being her only cinematic contribution, there’s little wonder why. She took on a small, uncredited role in Fate is the Hunter before appearing in what is one of her most famous projects.

In the wake of Peyton Place and Return to Peyton Place, it was decided to turn the material into a nighttime soap opera, airing twice a week with no season breaks the way traditional series operated. Inheriting Lana Turner’s role of Constance MacKenzie was Dorothy Malone. Playing her daughter Allison was none other than Mia Farrow.

Some changes were made to the story in adapting it to continuing drama (and the entire Cross family was written out), but, in the beginning anyway, the same basic setup was in place with Constance living with the secret that Allison was illegitimate and worrying about her daughter’s love life as she grew into young adulthood.

Despite the huge success of the series, Malone swiftly grew tired of the way her character was given lackluster storylines compared to those of some others including Farrow, Farrow’s love interest Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Parkins, who, for a time, became a major star as a result of this show. She was given the Golden Apple award by the press for her cooperativeness and gained two Golden Globe nominations for her work on the series, but it all ended poorly in 1967 when she was written out and sued the producers for breach of contract. The case was settled out of court.

All this was after she was stricken with some serious health issues involving pulmonary embolism, blood clots in both lungs, an enlarged heart and pneumonia! During this crisis, she was replaced on the show by Lola Albright. Fortunately, she was retained for the later TV reunion movies Murder in Peyton Place (1977) and Peyton Place: The Next Generation (1985.)

A mixture of TV work, involving guest shots and movies, along with the occasional feature film followed. The projects varied greatly in quality from the far-out shenanigans of the foreign-made The Insatiables to the well-known, highly successful miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man. Malone, who had by then embraced a fairly garish makeup scheme and increasingly light, platinum hair, was frequently cast as madams or other woman of ill repute. (Check her out in the shot below with one of her daughters! We’ll give her a slight pass since it was 1985 and Donna Mills had everyone trying to duplicate her own raccoon eyes and tousled hair.) She also popped up in several science fiction and horror outings with very low budgets and even lower degrees of taste.

Still, she worked in some of the TV movies that are most remembered from the glory days of the 70s including Little Ladies of the Night (about child prostitutes) and Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold (about Katie, played by Kim Basinger, who becomes – how did you guess? – a centerfold model.) Some of the popular series she guest-starred on are Ironside, Police Woman, The Streets of San Francisco and Vega$. She also worked in the ensemble of the glitzy miniseries Condominium.

By the mid-80s, Dorothy Malone’s acting career had wound down almost completely. She had appeared in around 60 movies over the course of 40 years and done many TV movies and guest roles in addition to her 245 episodes of Peyton Place.

However, in 1992, Michael Douglas, the son of her old The Last Sunset costar Kirk Douglas, helped arrange a cameo role for her in Basic Instinct. The supremely provocative and racy, yet undeniably stylish and polished, film marked the final appearance of Malone to date. She played Hazel Dobkins, the enigmatic friend and possible lover of Sharon Stone, who has previously killed her own family! It was a minor part, but one in a hugely popular film and, thus, provided a reasonably decent way for her to exit (as well as keep her SAG benefits active for a while longer.)

Dorothy Malone had a lengthy, prolific career on the screen and, while she perhaps didn’t achieve superstardom, she did enjoy great success and is often the best thing present in whatever it is she was taking part in. Possessing a distinctive throaty voice and massive, expressive eyes, she always provided interest, no matter the quality of the material. 85 years-old as of this writing, it’s a shame that she hasn’t been utilized in DVD commentaries or interviews in order to mine her long experience for tidbits about the people and projects she was a part of in her career. She worked with many of the screen’s most significant performers and wasn’t one to avoid speaking her mind.


TJB said...

I love a girl who can Mambo a man to death.

Poseidon3 said...

Hilarious! Glad to see you're still getting your toes wet over here! ;-)

Topaz said...

I'll always remember her as Ma Jordache in "Rich Man, Poor Man." And her praying aloud when Pa Jordache (Ed Asner) wanted to have marital relations with her. I remember thinking, "C'mon, it can't be THAT bad."

David Brum said...

She would have been perfect as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. Not that Anne Bancroft wasn't great in it, but Dorothy Malone had that predatory look in her eyes.

Poseidon3 said...

I like it! Malone was a little bit cougar-ish with Tab Hunter in "Battle Cry."