Connie Stevens, one of the more pleasing starlets of the 1950s, steps away from her pervasive image and steps behind the camera for a companionable, old-fashioned drama about a small-town Missouri family and the prodigal daughter who comes homeHelping out on the selection committee of The 18th Philadelphia Film Festival and Cinefest 09, and writing program notes, I've been in the comfortable position to discover a few gems that, hopefully, will see the light of day beyond the usual dead-end film-festival circuit.
Over the next few weeks, I'll share some of my discoveries with you. First up: Connie Stevens' "Saving Grace B. Jones." Yes, that Connie Stevens.
OK, full disclosure. I’m crazy for Connie Stevens. Her performance in Delmer Daves’ "Susan Slade" (1961) is an unheralded triumph, and her Cricket Blake on the TV series Hawaiian Eye is downright iconic.
A seriously underrated performer, Stevens has experimented with directing – first with "A Healing," a 1997 documentary about nurses who served in Vietnam, and now with her first narrative, the Missouri-set "Saving Grace B. Jones," an old-fashioned ‘50s melodrama, in which Tatum O’Neal (below with child actor Evie Thompson) delivers an affecting comeback performance as Grace, a troubled woman reconnecting with her family following years of institutionalization.
Reminiscent of the work of William Inge, Stevens’ movie is handsomely filmed and boasts a cast that includes Piper Laurie, Penelope Ann Miller, Michael Biehn, Scott Wilson and Joel Gretsch as a guy who was once married to Grace for one day. The film contains several talented child actors, mostly girls, and Stevens does something risky and experimental by encouraging them to give animated performances. Their work, much of the earlier part of the film for that matter, comes with the ebulience that always marked Stevens' own work as a performer.
Stevens was a Warners TV actress ("77 Sunset Strip"/"Hawaiian Eye") who had a co-starring role in "Parrish" and the lead title role in the aforementioned "Susan Slade," in which she's excellent as an unwed mother forced to live a double life when her mother (Dorothy Maguire), in an effort to protect Susan, opts to pose as the mother of the child.
There is something so internal and timorous about Stevens' handling of the role that one could well imagine her as a Hitchcock blonde. (There are shades of "Marnie" here.) Stevens had fun in the comic William Conrad thriller, "Two on a Guillotine" (1965) and in Bud Yorkin's "Never Too Late" (also '65), from the Broadway comedy, and she appeared in Robert Aldrich's "The Grissom Gang" (1971), in which she shared the screen with Kim Darby - the ex-wife of Stevens' ex-husband, James Stacy. Got that?
But her film-acting career never really took off. There were reports that the role that Stevens really wanted was Eliza Doolittle in Warners' film of "My Fair Lady," but Jack Warner refused to entertain the thought.
Too bad. I've a hunch that she could have pulled it off.
Anyway, Stevens, seemingly the eternal starlet, is now 70 and with "Saving Grace B. Jones" perhaps her career will be rediscovered/redefined, affording her the credit she so richly deserves.
The 18th Philadelphia Film Festival and Cinefest 09 will run from March 26th until April 7th, 2009.