Friday, January 29, 2010

Next is Alexis...

The subject of today’s tribute is an actress who toiled away for years in more than a few (sometimes undemanding) feature film roles only to walk away and then return to some of her greatest ever acclaim, this time on the Broadway stage, followed by a smattering of more interesting film parts – Miss Alexis Smith.

Born in British Columbia, Canada in 1921, she later moved to Los Angeles and it was while in a college play there she was spotted by a Warner Brothers talent scout and signed to a contract in 1940. She would spend ten years at the studio and appear in over thirty films during that period of time.

Like most other starlets, she was put through rigorous and highly varied photo sessions in order to examine every facet of her appeal. She was posed and decorated in every conceivable way with differing hair, makeup, clothing (frequently swimsuits) and lighting. Though she looked fine with her hair down (and in real life preferred it fairly short and with just a soft wave to it), it was determined that she suited well the 1940s style, which was to pile it up on top as much as possible.

At 5’9” in her bare feet, she wasn’t going to be doing any Alan Ladd pictures! Her statuesque figure gave her an inherently elegant quality that was complimented by a sense of class and serenity. Her features were sharp and angular and there was a certain tightness across the eyes which didn’t matter much when she was young, but made it easier for her as an older adult to play roles with a degree of menace to them.

First, her roles were small, mostly uncredited even, but she swiftly showed promise and was rewarded in 1941 with the leading lady role in the Errol Flynn-Fred MacMurray flight movie Dive Bomber. The color film showed her off beautifully and she began to win better roles in subsequent movies. She also met a supporting actor on the set of this film who would later mean a lot to her, Craig Stevens.

Just a year later, she was cast opposite Flynn again in the wonderful boxing biopic Gentleman Jim, all about the legendary Jim Corbett. In all, she would work with Flynn four times and though her set of teamings with him pale a bit compared to those of his with Olivia de Havilland, she more than held her own. This time out she had a delicious give and take relationship with him and provided the romantic part of the plotline with a firm anchor.

Smith worked with many of the top stars of her day including Charles Boyer, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable and William Holden. She also, however, has the distinction of having played opposite Jack Benny in a film he joked about for the rest of his career, The Horn Blows at Midnight. Though it is not regarded by most fans as the howler he always claimed it was, it had a disappointing box office showing and he frequently brought it up as a joke for decades after.

In 1944, she married fellow actor and contract player Craig Stevens. The couple remained together for close to 50 years, though the childless union was allegedly an arranged marriage in order to cover up their respective sexual identities. They surely felt something for each other, however, to have stuck it out until her death in 1993! He was later best known as TV’s Peter Gunn and, though he was a decent enough looking guy in his early years, I’ve really never been able to generate much excitement over him. He always seemed too disposably generic and unremarkable looking, especially from the 1950s on.

Smith continued to play female leads and second leads, often giving as much as she could to colorless parts, never performing badly, but also never having enough of interest to do that would generate any sort of award notice. In 1948, she filmed the fascinating mystery film The Woman in White, about a mid-19th century estate that is being “haunted” by an enigmatic young girl. This tale, which was adapted much later into a Broadway musical, offers terrific roles for the mammoth Sydney Greenstreet and especially John Abbott who plays an overwrought invalid. Smith, though the ostensible lead, was asked to portray the “plain” one while Eleanor Parker has the more showy (dual) role and more elaborate costume and hair trimmings.

As the 50s dawned, she found herself in some decent films along with some lesser ones, but always giving more to the projects than they warranted. For example, she lent talent, looks, presence and ability to a western film with a lackluster title like Wyoming Mail. She played a young lady bent on avenging the death of her father in Undercover Girl, a B-movie that also featured Scott Brady before he started down the road of weight gain that shifted his career path.

1951’s Here Comes the Groom, a musical starring Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman, signified a certain change of pace for her and she got a meaty role in 1954’s The Sleeping Tiger about a wife who is aroused by the arrival of a criminal Dirk Bogarde into her household. The Eternal Sea was with Sterling Hayden, who always cared more about the water and boats than anything else. She then played Bob Hope’s wife in Beau James, a rare Hope film in which there is a certain level of drama and emotion present.

In 1959, she enjoyed a strong role as a married woman who falls for young attorney Paul Newman in The Young Philadelphians. Her work in the movie was almost universally praised, but she would not follow it up with another film. In fact, though she did several TV guest appearances and one TV-movie, she would be absent from the big screen for about 15 years!

Her husband Stevens’ career was finally taking off with the success of his TV show Peter Gunn and the pair would occasionally work on a stage play together. In 1971, Alexis Smith, who had not been prominently in the public eye for about a decade and certainly had never been primarily thought of as musical star, was handed the role of Phyllis Stone in Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway show Follies. Concerning the reunion of a bunch of former Vaudeville performers attending their old theatre just prior to demolition (and featuring a large collection of talented stars whose peak time had rather gone by), Smith dazzled audiences with her acting, singing and startlingly high-kicking and energetic dancing! Her splash was such that she made the cover of Time magazine. She also won the coveted Tony Award for her role.

Her newfound success onstage led to her portraying Sylvia Fowler in a revival of The Women, followed by the part of lonely teacher Rosemary in Summer Brave (a reworking, by William Inge, of his classic play Picnic.) Ironically, both of these parts had been played earlier onscreen by Rosalind Russell. She wound up her amazing comeback on the stage with another Tony Award nomination for the otherwise unsuccessful musical fiasco Platinum. In the bargain, she attracted a small cult following among gay men.

Adding to her allure amongst the gay community was the publication in 1973 of Rita Mae Brown’s lesbian-themed novel Rubyfruit Jungle, which was dedicated to Smith and featured a blurb in tribute to her as part of the dedication. Ms. Brown considered the two decades older Smith to be the love of her life.

Smith then made a daring return to the big screen in the instant camp classic Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough. Based on an explicit bestseller (by the world-famous authoress who also penned the mega-hit Valley of the Dolls) but quite watered down as a film, it focused on the daddy worship of a young girl (the dreary Deborah Raffin) who sublimates her forbidden feelings by taking up with a much older man. Kirk Douglas played her father and Alexis appeared as his jet-set millionairess wife.

Brenda Vaccaro copped an Oscar nomination for her role as Raffin’s brazen friend, but apart from her (and the good looks of an underused Gary Conway), the primary reason to watch the film is for the stylish, knowing, cool performance of Miss Smith. Decked to the hilt in (sometimes amusing) Moss Mabry clothes, she adds immeasurable class, wit and presence to this all-star film (that also features George Hamilton, David Janssen and Melina Mercouri.) Her character is a fascinating blend of haughty arrogance, vulnerability, style, elegance and bawdiness and, in the final analysis, is a part that would have made her old boss Jack Warner keel over from shock. Just watch it and wait until she goes to meet “Joyce” for bridge.

She followed up this film with a haunting little thriller that made many a kid gasp while watching it later on television. Jodie Foster starred in The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane about a bright and independent-minded child who lives in a big house with a never-seen father. Smith took a smallish part as the overbearing and insinuating landlady and in doing so provided a master class to the world in how to deliver the most out of a part, whether or not it is considered major.

In her two brief scenes, she managed to inject a massive amount of subtext and a panorama of attitudes into her character. Looking terrific in a pair of Valentino-designed New England matron ensembles, she wrings every possible drop of interest, nuance and texture out of her role. Her scant screen time is a lesson in how to get the most out of every moment and not one solitary frame of her performance is lacking magnetism. She and Jodie share some delicious enmity in their dialogue.

A couple of years later, she portrayed a wealthy horse owner in the Walter Matthau family film Casey’s Shadow and then once again stepped away from screen work for a period of time. In 1982, she and her husband did roles in a French film for Joseph Losey called The Trout and in 1985 she played Cheryl Ladd’s mother in the TV movie A Death in California.

When Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas went to bat one final time together on the big screen in Tough Guys, Smith was enlisted to join them, though the 1986 fashion trappings did her no real favors aesthetically. She was cast in a television hospital series called Hothouse in 1988, but it was cancelled after 7 episodes.

More memorable for a lot of fans is her guest role on Dallas. She first appeared in 1984 as Lady Jessica Montford, the aristocratic (and unbalanced) sister of Howard Keel’s Clayton Farlow for 7 episodes. However, she was brought back in 1990 for 4 more episodes to reprise the role, terrorizing the Ewings, chiefly Miss Ellie, with a gun.

Sadly, Alexis Smith developed cancer of the brain and so her time with us ended when she was 72 before she could deliver even more compelling parts. Still, she was working almost up until her death. Her last film, Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, in which she played a prominent 19th century society woman, was released posthumously. She graced us with her talent only as often as she felt like it, and there are long stretches of time in her onscreen resume with nothing there, but during the times she did work, she gave her everything. Her widower, Craig Stevens, died of cancer himself in 2000 and their estate was left primarily to charity, chiefly to a program that adapts locations for disability access.

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