Monday, June 18, 2018

façade: Diane Varsi

Mark Robson's 1957 film version of Grace Metalious' "Peyton Place" was a huge popular and critical hit in its day and I'm convinced that most of its credibility can be traced to the film's two appealing young ingenués.

They would be Hope Lange who played Selena Cross and, especially, Diane Varsi, who starred as Allison MacKenzie. Diane Varsi. Yes, Diane Varsi. What a brilliant, singular actress, perhaps too brilliant and singular for American moviegoers. Maybe even too good for American moviegoers.

Varsi, who died in virtual anonymity of respiratory failure in 1992, made her last film appearance 40 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 - an actress with an off-kilter personality and a penchant for off-beat, sing-song line-readings. She was also something of a maverick and a rebel.

But she managed to work for Fox, providing the studio and audiences with strong, memorable performances in a string of solid films - the Gary Cooper-Suzy Parker vehicle, "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," co-starring Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, Orson Welles and Martin Milner.

But by 1959, a mere two years later, her Hollywood career was dead.

A decade later, Varsi surfaced in a series of social protest films, including "Sweet Love, Bitter" (with Dick Gregory and, again, Murray); Two Shelley Winters titles, "Wild in the Streets" and "Bloody Mama" (the latter a Ma Barker flick with a young Robert DeNiro); the intriguing 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).

She disappeared again, returning (albeit all-too-briefly) in "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden." And then, she was gone once again.

But this time, forever.

Diana Varsi's slight filmography is as idiosyncratic and as special as the actress herself.  She has been much missed and is worthy of rediscovery.

Notes in Passing:  This essay was originally published in 2010 and I had forgotten about it until just recently when it came back into my life as a result of a few belated reader responses, all warmly written. So I decided to revisit it and dust it off - to remember Diane Varsi one more time.

That said, it should be noted that Varsi's trajectory in the film industry is not unlike that of another personality from a decade later, Mimsy Farmer, also one-of-a-kind and also far too good for the movie marketplace.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top)

~Two views of Diane Varsi as Allison MacKenzie in "Peyton Place"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1957© 

~Studio publicity shot of Varsi
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1958©


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.

Unknown 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

Unknown 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.

Unknown said...

knew diane for two years. a strange coincidence. i own rental properties in san francisco. had a large flat across the street from golden gate park available. she called on the vacancy. was either 74 or 75. seems she was thinking of living in the city again. met her at the property. she said i can not do this. the flat was 796 19th avenue at fulton. she pointed across the street to 777 19th ave. the house she and sister gael had been born in. i said i understood. i was born on the near west side in detroit. no way i could live on the 500 block of calumet again. talked for a bit. developed we had a number of biographic passages in common. got to gather in cafes for conversation 4-5 times. i endorse all the other comments about her special nature. the one thing missing is a mention of her her intense sense of personal integrity and her honesty . she had five different smiles. each singular and radiant. my sons home is on broadmore ave, san anselmo. close to mt. tamalpais cemetery. on a trip back to the U.S. in april i went to see if the place where diane was sleeping was neat. could not locate her place. the director in the office said that the marker had been removed by Willo. too many people being disrespectful a few
had picnics there. one of the women in the office said that her daughter and Willo were friends. before i could get her name people came in i assume to make arraignments so i left. maybe Willo knows who the woman is. could write for hours about diane. a rare being.

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.

Kiki said...

"Off kilter¨is a fine way of describing Varsi's style. She didn't quite fit in categories like femme fatale, squeaky clean girl next door, smart aleck girlfriend and I felt she knew a little too much to play the ingenue. If she had gone on to when TV was writing good roles for women -- well, at least in the UK with ¨Prime Suspect" (Helen Mirren) "Rumpole of the Bailey" (Patricia Hodge) eg. -- she may have found niche. Thanks for the memory. kiki.

Billy from Philly said...

Hi, Joe.

I have been reading THE PASSIONATE MOVIEGOER for a long time now, and have NEVER seen such warm, wonderful, poignant responses as were received from your Diane Varsi post. I had no idea that she was born in San Francisco. Interesting that a lot of those making comments live now, or at one time lived, in San Francisco.

Post from Diane's daughter must be a "first," for family of the subject of your blog to reply.

Quality of comments obviously reflected quality of writer of blog!

Charlotte said...

I agree with Billy. The comments that you received on this post are indeed awesome. And, yes, it says much about the essay you wrote. Well-done!

Chellis said...

Joe! I've never heard of her. Now I MUST see her films! Thanks for the heads-up!!

Shawn said...

Thank you for the very kind words about my mother. Thinking of her today on her birthday.

joe baltake said...

She was a great actress, Shawn. You should be proud. Your mention of her birthday reminds me of how much she is missed. -J

Frog Prince said...

Some six decades since her death and as many years since first mesmerized by her on screen characterizations (Peyton Place, Compulsion, Wild in the Streets, Johnny Got His Gun,...Rose Garden). Whenever just so happening upon anything about her, I think too long overdue a book about her haunting life. With best regards to her daughter and those privileged to know her, I envy their first hand contact with such a sensitive soul. Better they are for having had her in their lives, as are others of us through her brief but stunning career. May she continue to rest in well-deserved peace.

joe baltake said...

Sensitive soul. Well put! Thank you.