14. Catherine Burns (Last Summer)
Sometimes the very qualities that made an actor right for an unusual role, one that might be a big success, makes the actor wrong for a sustained career. Just ask Catherine Burns. A stage and soap actress from an early age, the actress, while still in her young adult years, auditioned for a role in an upcoming film from the acclaimed husband and wife team of Frank and Eleanor Perry, two independent New York-based film makers.
The project was a film version of the Evan Hunter novel, Last Summer, which tells of a how a trio of rather jaded and amoral teens meets up on a resort island and drift into some really evil doings, tragically involving a wounded seagull, then even more tragically involving a sad, dumpy, friendless young girl.
Casting the three glamorous leads wasn’t that hard but the pathetic girl was. The role called for someone who, in many films, had been the butt of the joke but in this one was the only one with any sort of moral compass, for which she pays dearly. With her small frame, carrying a bit too much weight, oversized features (augmented with braces in the film) and sad eyes, Miss Burns fairly screamed out “victim” and “loser” and the devastating punch line of the film is when the character becomes those very things.
Despite telling interviewers that she was a true outcast and couldn’t believe her luck, she got an Oscar nomination and the other actors (beautiful Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davidson, and Richard Thomas) did not. However, they had careers and she didn’t. She and Thomas must have hit it off since her only other film of note was as his love interest in Red Sky at Morning in 1971 and one of her last acting jobs was a guest shot on his show. Her last professional acting credit was a small role in a knockoff version of an “Afterschool Special.”
15. Michael J. Pollard (Bonnie and Clyde)
Like Catherine Burns, Michael J. Pollard was another broken clock caught at exactly the right time of day. Diminutive with what was often called a “potato face,” Pollard had been doing roles in movies and somewhat larger roles in TV for most of the 1960s when he fell into what would become not only one of the biggest hits of the decade but one of Hollywood’s most influential and memorable films, and one of film history’s most beloved success stories.
No one but producer/star Warren Beatty, director Arthur Penn, and the writers seemed to believe in Bonnie and Clyde, a true-ish, glamorized account of the 1930s bank robbers. The production couldn’t afford big stars, though it now looks star-studded since so many in the cast went on to bigger and better roles…but not Michael J. Pollard. Yes, he was right playing the duo’s freaky little henchman/get-away driver but that was the only kind of role he could play.
The Oscar nomination he received was a bit excessive, especially when put next to the also-nominated performance of co-star Gene Hackman, excellent work from a talented and versatile actor. Just about the only lead roles Pollard ever had was his co-starring assignment opposite Robert Redford in 1970’s Big Fauss and Little Halsey and the minor 1972 western Dirty Little Billy, a tell-it-like-it-was account of Billy the Kid. The title kind of says it all.
16. Ali McGraw (Love Story)
Ali McGraw was an exquisite beauty and, as a Wellesley grad, a real class act in often crass Tinseltown. By many accounts, she is also one of the most democratic, warm and friendly people ever to become any kind of star in movies. And she is also one of the most truly talentless actors ever to achieve stardom, if only for a while, and proud possessor of what may be the most undeserved Oscar nomination of all time.
For those under a certain age, it’s hard to explain why she was ever a big deal. Pretty? Oh, yes, but many pretty faces come and go in the movies. Elegant? She was that and the kind of innate intelligence she possessed are harder commodities to come by in Hollywood. She really had the good luck to come along at a time when the movie business was at low ebb (and make no mistake, the end of 1960s and very early 1970s was a bad time in the business) and landed in a few right films.
Her first starring role was in 1969’s Goodbye, Columbus, a rather good adaptation of Phillip Roth’s acclaimed short novel about an intelligent but aimless young Jewish man’s interaction with a gauche, nouveau riche Jewish family whose daughter he’s dating. Though not Jewish herself, McGraw seemed to understand her princess-y character. Although her line readings were as bad as they would stay throughout her career the film did pretty well.
Around that time she married Paramount big-wig Robert Evans and he cast her in what looked to be a nothing picture. Written by a professor at several Ivy League universities who was slumming from writing texts concerning classical literature, the film told the story of how a young man from a wealthy family meets a lovely, but tough-talking girl from the wrong side of the tracks. He weathers being disinherited by his snooty dad for marrying her and hits it big as an attorney, only to have tragedy strike.
It was called, simply, Love Story,and it was about as nuanced and artful as its title. Miss McGraw’s co-star was Ryan O’Neal, then coming off a long run on TV’s “Peyton Place” and scarcely better than his leading lady as far as acting was concerned. Still, they looked great, the film’s stupid catch phrase, “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” caught on big, and an Oscar went to the film’s real star, the score from French composer Francis Lai.
Anyone coming to this film today would surely think that the generation of moviegoers in 1970 was mentally defective for they made it, at the time, the third highest grossing film ever! Miss McGraw, despite the critics, was the toast of the media world…until she left her husband for co-star Steve McQueen while making The Getaway, the last hit with which she would ever be involved—and it was much more his hit than hers.
Though she and Evans somehow remained friends, especially after things eventually ended with McQueen years later, he couldn’t put her back in orbit and the three films that she made after a lapse of many years were all-around flops. She did TV (the mini-series “Winds of War” and a season on “Dynasty”) but her poor performances ended that phase of her career. The sad thing is that she knew she was no good and bravely admitted it and often said that she couldn’t figure out why. Now that does take class.
17. Tom Courtney (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner/Billy Liar)
Tom Courtney may well be a case of someone who truly did put his money where his mouth is. A dedicated stage actor, he came to British cinema in the “angry young man” days along with such people as Alan Bates and Terrence Stamp. These films showed the grittier side of British life, far from the polite doings of the traditional British cinema up until that time.
Courtney fell in with two young directors, also from the theater, also starting in films at that time. With Tony Richardson he made The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, an excellent drama concerning the purposed reclamation of a reform school boy through his gift of running (not inspirational, as it sounds).
The other was John Schlesinger, with whom he made Billy Liar, a seriocomic study of a sort of young man who dreams (and lies) all of his life but who backs away at the moment when he might make some dreams come true. The actor was wonderful in both but he loved the stage and started to retreat from films.
After he received a supporting Oscar nomination for David Lean’s Dr Zhivago (the kind of big, rather empty film he detested, though his performance is the most honest thing in it), his films became fewer, farther between, and smaller. He had a critical comeback in 1983 with The Dresser but he abdicated stardom and preferred to remain an actor, mostly on stage and TV.
18. Diane Varsi (Peyton Place)
The rise and fall (mostly planned) of Diane Varsi is one of the strangest stories of vintage Hollywood. Twentieth Century Fox was only too happy to buy the sensationalistic, salacious best seller about life in a small New England town rife with secrets and intrigue, Peyton Place.
There were lots of roles in the film, some for veteran actors and many for younger ones and Fox was always in the market for pretty new faces of both genders. The studio held open auditions for the younger roles (though most went to established and/or contract players). The one person to benefit from this was an odd young lady who all but wandered into the audition. She appeared to be a beatnik and wasn’t sure that she wanted to act and had never heard of Peyton Place.
The casting agents were quite taken with her. Her name was Diane Varsi and it would turn out that she already had quite a history, including getting married at an age when most young girls were in junior high. Though not a conventional Hollywood beauty, the studio saw an honest quality to her that was perfect for the key supporting role of Allison, the sensitive young woman who narrates the story and yearns to be a writer.
Varsi was cast and worked very hard at her performance (she is the only one in the film that uses a New England accent, though she drops it after the first few scenes). She scored one of the film’s many Oscar nominations and one of the few it deserved. However, she was an emotionally unstable young lady and she and Hollywood didn’t get along. She suffered a nervous breakdown making her next film and begged Fox to release her from her contact after making 1959’s Compulsion saying that she wanted to run away from destruction.
In any case, she was released and subsequently went to work as a migrant picking fruit. Needing money, she came back to movies in the late 1960s and got sporadic work at low budget American International Pictures and on TV. She would die at 54 from the combination of respiratory failure and Lyme’s disease.
19. Carroll Baker (Baby Doll)
The story of Carroll Baker shows that truth can stranger than fiction. Many, many an actress thought of as a sex symbol has struggled to be taken seriously as a talented thespian. Baker started her career winning major plaudits but, to hell with that!, she wanted to be thought of as sexy! She was trained as a Method actress and thought of as a rising star at the Actor’s Studio.
When she entered films in 1955 things happened very quickly for her. Distinguished old school director George Stevens hired her for a key supporting role in his massive production Giant, playing the willful daughter of the characters played by Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. The film was one of the biggest hits of the 1950s and she earned some fine notices for her debut.
However, better was yet to come. The great stage and screen director, Elia Kazan, one of the key promoters of the Method, needed a younger actress for an exciting new project he was formulating. It was the first (and last, as it happened) film to feature an original script by renowned playwright Tennessee Williams, though inspired by two of his one-act plays.
The story dealt with an infantile young woman married to the much older owner of a decrepit cotton gin in the poverty ridden rural south. Per an arrangement with her dying father, the husband promised never to touch her until her twentieth birthday and only then if he’s supporting her adequately.
Well, the birthday is coming up and the furniture has been repossessed due to no business from competition from the modern gin managed by a Sicilian newcomer. The husband commits a desperate act, prompting the manager to formulate a vengeful plan involving the wife.
The film was Baby Doll and it was a comic delight but the Catholic Church majorly condemned it for being carnal and immoral. The film’s ad copy featured a large picture of Baker’s character laying in a baby’s crib sucking her thumb, an oddly sensuous image. She had hoped for a supporting nomination for Giant but was surprised with an best actress nomination for Baby Doll and it was rightly deserved.
The problem was that she couldn’t find a follow up role. Her subsequent dramatic films all bombed. She had a supporting role in director William Wyler’s hit, The Big Country, but she didn’t want to be a supporting actress. She decided to become a sex symbol. The problem was that ,though pretty, she wasn’t sexy except when playing a perverse role, such as the one in Baby Doll.
Only producer Joseph E. Levine thought that she had a chance and put her in his film version of Harold Robbins’ trashy novel, The Carpetbaggers. She had a key supporting role as a Jean Harlow-ish sex symbol and the film did well at the box office. This helped her to persuade Levine to buy the infamous Irving Schulman bio of Harlow for her.
Harlow proved to be her complete undoing, a total disaster with which the critics had a field day, not only panning her performance but unfavorably comparing her as a woman to Harlow. She left the country, much less Hollywood, never to really return.
20. Bo Derek (10)
Some true stories no one would make up for fear of sounding far-fetched. Try this: an admittedly stunning young woman with no education or acting training—or talent, for that matter—lands a small role in a film nobody expects to be noticed. The film becomes a hit, mostly due to the few minutes of footage that make her a major sex symbol…for a while. Improbable? Yes, but that was the story of Bo Derek.
Born Cathleen Collins, she left high school after barely giving it a chance. She drifted into an audition for a film being planned by John Derek, a onetime matinee idol struggling to become a producer-director largely by marrying and micromanaging a number of woman he hoped to turn into love goddesses. He was looking for a Mediterranean type for the film, which was to star his then-wife Linda Evans.
He thought the young woman the wrong type but Evans persuaded him to look again, for she thought the younger woman had something going for her (she never seemed to realize Miss Collins looked like a younger version of herself). Faster than anyone thought possible Evans was out and the newly christened Bo was in. A small role in the nautical thriller Orca didn’t go anywhere but director Blake Edwards was looking for a beauty for a small but crucial role in his new film.
The picture, to be tilted 10, was the story of a songwriter (Dudley Moore) going through a mid-life crisis who spots an exquisite young woman in a wedding dress in a limo going to her wedding and deems her perfect (a 10 on a scale of one to ten). He spends much of the rest of the film searching for her only to discover that she’s the human equivalent of fool’s gold.
The young woman only has one real scene in the film and Derek pulled it off, largely because she seemed much like her hollow character. Her one attempt at any kind of serious acting ,a supporting role in the forgettable A Change of Seasons, went nowhere. However, her husband decided, in the face of lots of publicity, that it was time to take over. He put her in two truly trashy films, Tarzan, The Ape Man and BOLERO, soft core epics that existed more to put Mrs. Derek’s pictures in “Playboy” than anything else. After those two films she was history and has drifted completely out of the public eye.
Author Bio: Woodson Hughes is a long-time librarian and an even longer time student/fan of film,cinema and movies. He has supervised and been publicist for three different film socieities over the years. He is married to the lovely Natalie Holden-Hughes, his eternal inspiration and wife of nearly four years. You can visit his blog at Stream of Dreams.