Monday, December 21, 2015

façade: Diane Varsi

Mark Robson's 1957 film version of Grace Metalious' "Peyton Place" was a huge popular and critical hit in its day, surprisingly so, and I'm convinced that most of its credbility can be traced to its two appealing young ingenués - Hope Lange who played Selena Cross and, especially, Diane Varsi, who starred as Allison MacKenzie.

Diane Varsi. Yes, Diane Varsi. What a singular actress, perhaps too singular for American moviegoers. Certainly too good for American moviegoers.

Varsi, who died in virtual anonymity of respiratory failure in 1992, made her last film appearance more than 30 years ago with a small role in Kathleen Quinlan's 1977 movie, "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden." Although she received an Oscar nomination for "Peyton Place," Varsi made it difficult for her home studio, 20th Century-Fox, to cast her in subsequent productions because she was essentially ahead of her time - a maverick and rebel with an off-kilter personality and a penchant for off-beat, sing-song line-readings.

But she managed to work for Fox, giving good performances in the Gary Cooper-Suzy Parker film, "Ten North Frederick" (based on the John O'Hara story), directed by Philip Dunne; the Don Murray Western, "From Hell to Texas" (aka, "Man Hunt"), directed by Henry Hathaway, and Richard Fleishcer's fine film on the Leopold-Loeb case, "Compulsion," starring Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman. But by 1959, a mere two years later, her Hollywood career was dead. A decade later, she surfaced in a series of anti-social/protest films, including "Sweet Love, Bitter" (with Dick Gregory and, again, Murray); Two Shelley Winters films, "Wild in the Streets" and "Bloody Mama" (the latter a Ma Barker flick with a young Robert DeNiro); the intriuging crime-spree film, "Killers Three" (with Dick Clark and Robert Walker, Jr.), and Dalton Trumbo's anti-war saga, "Johnny Got His Gun" (starring Timothy Bottoms).

Then, she disappeared again, returning briefly in "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden."

Diana Varsi's slight filmmography is as idiosyncratic as the actress herself, not unlike another curious personality from a decade later, Mimsy Farmer. One of a kind, again too good for the marketplace


Bruce said...

In 1959, Diane gave a brilliant performance in a Playhouse 90 television play called "The Ding-a-ling Girl" about a unique and gifted young actress who suddenly turns her back on her unexpected success. The next year, Diane Varsi walked away from Hollywood. Coincidence? In 1962, I saw Diane Varsi in an avant garde play in a San Francisco warehouse -- the "play" was incoherent, but was meant to be anti-establishment.
The other posts are sadly true: all too often, Hollywood has failed to give the most gifted and unique young actresses the roles they deserved, because they were too unusual (and often not considered beautiful enough) for conventional heroine parts. However, many of us DO fondly remember the Joan Hacketts, Diane Varsis, Kathleen Widdoes, Zorah Lamperts, Lee Grants, Eleanor Brons, etc. Jennifer Jason Leigh is in danger of sliding into this category today. It's too bad that Diane Varsi can't know that she's well remembered today.

l. imperial said...

I like Diane Varsi. She is one of my favorite actresses since "Peyton Place." Too bad she chose the life of a recluse, so I haven't seen her other films or even heard news about her.

Also living same recluse life, but very happy now in the service of the Lord - Dolores Hart.

Philip said...

I love the new Passionate Movieogers. Diane Varsi was an early teen passion of mine.

Willo Clare said...

Diane was my mom. I appreciate you writing on her in such a thoughtful manner and enjoyed seeing the top photo which has an almost 'hand-tinted' look. Glad to know she still has fans. I miss her. Life was certainly intense growing up with DMV, but she was also extremely loving and wise. No one has laughed so heartily, which all her being. I am film and stage director, considering developing a play about her life (intertwined with mine), for not only was she gifted and beautiful, but she was also inspiring in terms of spiritual gifts and contained a deep, rare wisdom.

joe baltake said...

Willo! Thanks for sharing. As an actress, your mom was certainly singular - a pleasure to watch.

Beth Hoffman said...

I loved your Mom and saw the movie
Peyton Place five times when I was sixteen. She let me interview
her for Photoplay Magazine in1958.
She was a great woman and we corresponded and we would talk on the phone. My name was Beth Hoffman and I saw her on April 18.1998. I will always love your mother

Paul Nesbitt said...

Actor Ray Stricklyn was a close pal of Diane - they were the young leads in 10 North Frederick with Gary Cooper. Dick Clayton (who recently died in his early 90s) also handled Barbra Strisant, Dick Chamberlain, Jane Fonda and many other top talents - was Diane's agent and was one of the biggest agents in Hollywood. When she suddenly left Hollywood to teach at a top Eastern college, Dick (and actor Trent Dolan) went back to try to encourage her to return and accept the many top film offers - with the top directors of Hollywood, but she said she was happy and refused to return. Ray Stricklyn mentions Diane in his autobiography "Angels & Demons." Ray always spoke highly of Diane, but couldn't understand how she could turn down these top directors and films. She was a rare talent. I think after a few years she regretted her decision, but when she did return, Dick tried to help her, but Hollywood is unforgiving when they've offered the moon and been turned down. I can't remember any actress who had so many directors wanting to star her in their top films.
-- Paul Nesbitt

Nancy Park Johnson said...

I was one of Diane's closest friends. I knew her for 33 years. She was my mentor, my spiritual teacher and my good friend. She was one of the kindest, stongest,bravest and spiritually inclusive people I ever met. We lived together on several occassions and I am now mammanance to her daughter Willo Clare Hausman. My daughter Kirston Clare Johnson had Diane as her godmother and Willo is her godsister. Diane and I decided our two children should have the same middle names.
I do not know where I would be if Diane had not come into my life. We were solace for one another and she said we were sisters under the skin. I miss her more than I can say and have wonderful memories of our times together as well as photos of the two of us. A very rare essence was she and I loved her dearly. It's never been the same without her.Nancy Park Johnson

bookman said...

When I was a young photographer in SF sometime around 1972 Diane contacted me and we did some head shots. I never forgot the shoot. I loved her from the time I saw Johnny Got His Gun. She was warm, sweet and very fragile. I wish I had kept the negs for Willo.

Brian Lucas said...

Those with Netflix Instant may be interested to know that KILLERS THREE, WILD IN THE STREETS, JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN and BLOODY MAMA are all available for streaming.

So are two Mimsy Farmer films: THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK and DEVIL'S ANGELS.

George Fitzgerald said...

I saw Peyton Place as a teenager and fell heavily for Diane. I actually saw the film by accident having set out to watch another, and not knowing anything about it. I watched it several times. I remember writing to Diane at the time, the only time I ever wrote to an actress in 73 years.
Lovely of Willo to post on here about her mum; an echo of the lovely talented actress.
I've read that Diane wrote some poetry but never been able to find out more. Can anyone help?
George Fitzgerald

joe baltake said...

Dear George- I'm so happy that you were able to find this post. Yes, Diane Varsi was a special actress. If you haven't, you may want to check out eBay to find her poetry, that's if any of it has been published. Also you might simply google "Dian Varsi poetry" and see what comes up. As this essay is a few years old and not checked out as much as it was initially, it is unlikely that anyone will read your request - but one never knows! Let's cross our fingers. Good luck - and thank you for writing. -Joe

George Fitzgerald said...

And thank you for getting back to me Joe.
I'm suré there are many out there who will remember Diane fondly. I loved the comments from people who knew her.