DIRECTOR: John Cromwell | WRITER: Paddy Chayevsky | CAST: Kim Stanley, Lloyd Bridges, Steve Hill, Betty Lou Holland, Gerald Hiken, Joan Copeland, Patty Duke, Burt Brinckerhoff | USA
It would be very interesting to know the real back story of the 1958 movie The Goddess. Not whether it was really based on Marilyn Monroe — of that there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever — nor why a writer would write such a screenplay to begin with since the basic plot is irresistible. But who gave the go-ahead and why to make such a no-holds-barred study of a drug- and alcohol-addicted movie star crippled by severe emotional and psychological pathologies, especially when the obvious original of the character was not only still alive but still a major star?
Sorry. I’m having problems putting my thoughts down so this is going to be kind of herky-jerky. Paddy Chayevsky’s screenplay — his first or second for a movie — is structured explicitly in three acts and feels like an episode of Playhouse 90, complete with overly-explicit dialogue, set-piece oratory, and crudely repeated dramatic points; you can sense the outline Chayevsky worked out before he added dialogue to flesh it out. But John Cromwell, a director I’d never heard of before, manages to keep the movie going with a nice forward propulsion; in less capable hands the movie would have ground to a halt every few minutes. Kim Stanley was a curious choice since she was clearly way too old to play the teenaged Emily Ann Faulkner, and not nearly as drop-dead gorgeous as she should be to convince as screen goddess Rita Shawn, but more than that there’s Kim Stanley’s almost confrontational screen presence. Rita Shawn is described as a blend of oozing sexuality and vulnerability, but Stanley looks indomitable. But who cares? Kim Stanley gives a bravura performance that is equal parts outrageous camp and heartbreaking. Of the other actors, Patty Duke is quite good as the 10 year old Emily Ann; Burt Brinckerhoff is excellent as Louis, the high school boy who wants from Emily Ann what all the other boys are getting and talking about; and Betty Lou Holland gives a memorable performance as Emily Ann’s awful mother Laureen.
Two sequences that will stick with me for a long, long time. In the first, Louis drives Emily Ann back to her aunt’s apartment after their date. Emily tells Lou that she’d like to see him again in a wounded, heartbroken voice since she knows he has no intention of there being a second date, and indeed he remains silent and won’t look at her. It’s hard to explain what Kim Stanley does in this scene since she doesn’t do a lot, but she’s stunning. The other is later in the film when Rita Shawn is recuperating from a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt and her mother, now a Seventh Day Adventist, has come to stay with her for a short while in Shawn’s enormous mansion. We see Rita clattering along in high heels down long hallways and through enormous, almost empty rooms looking for something that she can’t find. She stops in one large, empty room and pours herself a big glass of Scotch at the wet bar and continues nervously walking and clattering through her house until she finally sees her mother through an open doorway in another wing of the house. It something about the way the sequence was shot, but also Kim Stanley’s body language that was just spot-on right. Oh, and Kim Stanley’s body language is also extraordinary in a scene where Rita argues with her Joe DiMaggio-like husband (played by Lloyd Bridges; eh) about whether he’ll accompany her to a party being given for her at the studio. Even without the sound on you can tell what Rita is thinking just from Kim Stanley’s eyes and tilts of the head; she flexes her outstretched hands for a split second at one point and the gesture was so right that I had to replay it immediately.
So, to wrap up: second rate screenplay with a first-rate plot outline; quite good directing and some standout performances, none greater than Kim Stanley’s which manages to be over-the-top and outrageously funny and exquisitely, superbly acted. Sometimes at the same time. Oh! I forgot to mention Virgil Thompson’s thoroughly inappropriate score which sounds like a pastiche of Aaron Copland’s jaunty, bouncy, all-Americana ballet scores.