“What’re you watching?”
Karen steps into the living room, glances at the TV, and tries to figure out what movie is playing on TCM. Usually, I’m watching a 30s screwball comedy, or a silent film from the 20s. But this film is from the 50s. Not my favorite decade. The lighting is dead flat, the sets are flimsy, and after barely a minute Karen can tell that the blonde actress in the scary bullet bra is up on the screen for only one reason. Actually, two reasons.
“That’s Mamie Van Doren in Girls Town, AKA the Innocent and the Damed,” I say.
Though trained as a psychologist, Karen has been around the film business long enough to recognize bad acting from, well, wretched acting.
“I’ve never seen a Mamie Van Doren film, ” I confess/explain/justify.
Karen: “And why would you? Even I know that there were three Ms in the fifties and sixties: Marilyn Monroe, the real thing; Jayne Mansfield a second-rate copy of Marilyn. And then, at the bottom of the heap, Mamie Van Doren, a sad imitation of a sad imitation.”
“Yeah, but she made a lot of movies, earned a lot of money, and she’s still alive, unlike Marilyn or Jayne. Which, in and of itself, is quite an accomplishment.”
Recently, TCM ran a whole bunch of Mamie Van Doren movies. I even sat through Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) co-starring Tuesday Weld, a film so bad it’s really bad. Mamie is beautiful, in a lacquered kind of way. Her range as an actress is, um, limited.
After screening half-a-dozen Mamie movies, I read her autobiography, Playing the Field. In one exhilarating sitting I ripped through the book. It is sen-sational. Mamie’s life is far more interesting than any of her movies.
Married five times, Mamie Van Doren (born—either in 1931 0r 1933—Joan Lucille Olander) claims to have had affairs with, well, everybody, including but certainly not limited to: Clark Gable, Howard Hughes, Johnny Carson, Elvis Presley, Burt Reynolds, Jack Dempsey, Steve McQueen, Johnny Rivers, Robert Evans, Eddie Fisher, Warren Beatty, Tony Curtis, Steve Cochran and Joe Namath.
There are actors we love because they are iconic. Their best films place us within a moral landscape in which we, the audience, participate through the personae of larger-than-life stars. Clark Gable is the rugged, dependable American male. Ingrid Bergman is the saintly woman all men want to marry. Marilyn Monroe is sexy, but tragically vulnerable. We sit in the dark, breathe in the manufactured stars and, in a sense, try and project ourselves into those images.
Some actors earn our respect for the sheer dominance of their work: the stubborn Bette Davis; Joan Crawford, ambitious and angry; and the noble Greer Garson.
And then there are a select group of actors who, in spite of bad films, dopey dialogue, and one-dimensional roles — yes, in spite of one calamitous movie after another — these players earn a mysterious affection. They are like children who chronically underachieve. They try—oh how they try—and they fail. And yet we love them, perhaps all the more, because they are so very hopeless.
Seraphic Secret’s affection for Mamie Van Doren crept up gradually after sitting through Untamed Youth (1957), in which Mamie became the first actress to sing rock n’ roll in a movie; The Girl in Black Stockings (1958); High School Confidential (1958) and Teacher’s Pet (1958), in which Mamie has a small but juicy role playing Clark Gable’s singer/slut girlfriend. And, finally, the brilliantly titled Guns, Girls and Gangsters (1959) in which Mamie plays… actually, I forget. After a while, her roles just merge one into the next — a bad girl who’s really good.
My deep affection and respect for Mamie was solidified after feasting on her compulsively readable memoir, Playing the Field.
In an autobiography bursting with vivid anecdotes, I’ve chosen the following excerpt because it’s got everything: sex, violence, jealousy — and dangerous footwear.
One evening, a few days after the Teacher’s Pet (1958) premiere, my friend Danni from Las Vegas called. She was now living in Los Angeles. We chatted on the phone for some time until Ray [Raymond Antonini, Mamie’s second husband] walked into the bedroom.
“Who’s that?” he demanded.
I waved him away and kept on talking. When he figured out who was on the line, he blew up. He jerked the telephone out of my hand and slammed it back down on the receiver, hurling accusations at me about being a lesbian. Perhaps that was why we had not had sex in a long time, he insinuated. I in turn called him every name I could think of.
I don’t remember now what it was he said, but something made me snap. I went after Ray with blood in my eye. I attacked him with a red patent-leather Pappagallo spike-heeled pump—a very smart weapon indeed. Ray was never particularly courageous. He took refuge where he always did—in the middle of the king-size bed, standing in his sock-feet, dodging from one side to the other. I faked in one direction, then ran around the other side of the bed and jumped up on it. He bounded off the other side, but not quickly enough. As he hit the floor, I bounced off as if it were a trampoline and swung hard at his head.
I connected, and the tiny nail-size heel caught him right on top of the head. Blood spurted everywhere. Ray howled and ran into the kitchen. The maid came out of hiding and tried to stanch the bleeding. I tried to help too, but whenever I came near him he bawled, “Mamie,! You stay away from me! If you come near me, I’ll kill you! So help me, I’ll kill you!”
“Oh, forget it,” I said finally in disgust, “then bleed to death.” I went into the bedroom and locked the door.
Mamie has a website cleverly titled Mamie Van Doren, that is loaded with photos. It seems that Mamie blogs every once in a while, and her stories are the stuff of legend. You can also buy a new, expanded edition of her memoir, which I highly recommend.