But beyond Liz and Marilyn, who pretty much ruled the roost in the day, there was a whole collection of second- and third-tier actresses who offered a wide diversity between the Imperial Brunette and Hot Blonde.
I'm not necessarily thinking of Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day, Natalie Wood, Shirley MacLaine and Janet Leigh - or of Lee Remick, Piper Laurie, Joanne Woodward and Jean Simmons. I admire them all. And while the era's "newcomers" - Hope Lange, Millie Perkins, Diane Baker and Suzy Parker - may not have become major players, people did know who they were.
And then there were Diane Varsi and Inger Stevens, both singular and who died far too young. They all enjoyed a star spot during their careers.
No, my fascination is with the fleeting stars - those actresses who were "almost stars," who worked unobtrusively as contract players, sometimes in lead roles and usually in B movies, but who, for some bizarre reason, represent the real quintessential female stars of their era. The names Nancy Gates, Mala Powers, Colleen Gray, Dianne Foster, Karen Sharpe, Felicia Farr, Mary Murphy, Betsy Palmer, Elaine Stewart and Diane Brewster may not mean anything to you, but they do to me. They were terrific.
All of them.
But even here, there was a pecking order - certain actresses who stood out more than others, even in secondary roles in secondary pictures.
First and foremost, there was the gorgeous and woefully overlooked Barbara Rush, who played in the occasional comedy ("Oh Men! Oh Women!" and "Come Blow Your Horn") but largely specialized in socially-conscious soap operas (Martin Ritt's "No Down Payment," Daniel Petrie's "The Bramble Bush," Vincent Sherman's "The Young Philadelphians" and Richard Quine's "Strangers When We Meet") where she brought a distinct artistry to her reliably tremulous line-readings. She cried often - and well.
The equally beautiful Julie Adams had a bit more of an "up" personality, which made her game for creature features, the most famous of which is Jack Arnold's "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954). She always had a sparkle in her eyes and she clicked with leading men as diverse as Richard Denning, George Nader, Charlton Heston and Francis, the Talking Mule.
Adams made a wildly memorable comeback, thanks to Dennis Hopper, in "The Last Movie" (1971), where she proved she was made for the counter-culture. As far as I'm concerned, she should have been Mike Nichols' Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate."
The lovely Delores Michaels, meanwhile, appeared in only 11 films but made a lasting impression on me. A Hitchcock blonde who got away before Hitch could discover her, I remember Michaels fondly for Henry Levin's "April Love" (1957), Edward Dmytryk's "Warlock" (1959), James Clavell's "Five Gates to Hell" (1959) and James B. Clark's "One Foot in Hell" (1961).
Slender, sculptured and icy (but in a good way), the German-born Dana Wynter (née, Dagmar Wynter) will forever be associated with Don Siegel's sublime pod movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"(1956), in which her character Becky Driscoll seemed to be a vague semblence of herself to begin with. Her best role - her best showcase, at least - was probably in Henry Koster's "Fräulein" (1958), which also starred the aforementioned Delores Michaels and which borrowed from her German heritage, but Wynter, always the strong, supportive woman, also shined in Richard Brooks's "Something of Value" (1957) opposite Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier, Michael Anderson's "Shake Hands with the Devil" (1959), with Jimmy Cagney, and even Melville Shavelson's "On the Double" (1960), a Danny Kaye vehicle. There are many, many more. Wynter enjoyed a more productive career than her counterparrts.
Patricia Owens, another Delores Michaels co-star (in "Five Gates to Hell"), also teamed with Rush (in "No Down Payment"), but she is perhaps best known for her role - and her scream - in Kurt Neumann's original "The Fly" (1955), a seminal film in my life. So I have a soft spot for this very attractive woman.
Owens enjoyed some good roles, particularly in Joshua Logan's "Sayonara" (1957), starring as Marlon Brando's uptight financée, and in Richard Fleischer's "Ten Thousand Hills" (1959), an excellent Western also starring Don Murray, Lee Remick, Albert Dekker, Stuart Whitman and Richard Egen. There was a skill and shyness about Owens that made her perfect for the sexually-suppressed '50s and '60s, but she was very good at hinting, largely with her beautiful eyes.
She seemed to bring a sensual longing to each of her roles, even the disposable ones, comparable to what Kim Novak did so magnificently in Quine's "Strangers When We Meet." It's a role that Owens could have played blindfolded, but, alas, she didn't have the star power.
Unerringly proper, Martha Hyer did not play likable women. She specialized in standoffish, often snobbish women and yet, thanks to her personal nuances, her women were never completely dislikable. Hyer made sure we understood her characters - their flaws and the psychology behind them.
She expertly plied her trade in such diverse films as Vincente Minnelli's 'Some Came Running" (1958), Melville Shavelson's "Houseboat" (1958), Jean Negulesco's "The Best of Everything" (1959), Jack Webb's "The Last Time I Saw Archie" (1961), Frank Tashlin's "The Man from the Diner's Club" (1963) and Arthur Penn's "The Chase" (1966), all in a short amount of time. At quick glance, Hyer was an enigma, but she really wasn't. A closer look shows her women were flesh-and-blood.
Well, that's my picks. Let me know if I left anyone out. Share yours.
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~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1957©
~Julie Adams (then Julia) and a bad blind date in Jack Arnold's "Creature from the Black Lagoon"
~photography: Universal International 1954©
Studio shots of Delores Michaels, Dana Wynter and Martha Hyer
~photography: Universal-International 1956©