Happy Birthday, Carroll Baker

In honor of this actress’ birthday, here’s a repost of my review of her autobiography, which was hugely formative in making me who I am today (a large claim, but accurate).

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Baby Doll, by Carroll Baker

When I was about 12 years old, I first saw East of Eden, around the same time that I saw Dog Day Afternoon, a movie I didn’t really understand (why was he robbing the bank again? Who was that guy he would talk to on the phone? What operation was he going to have?? I don’t understand! Isn’t he married too? WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING?) but which rocked me, shook me up. I had never thought much about acting as a craft. I knew what I liked, I loved movies, I loved playing make-believe, but it was the one-two punch of East of Eden and Dog Day Afternoon that made me think to myself: I want to know more about acting. How did James Dean DO what he did in that movie? How did Al Pacino DO that?? There had to be a secret, a trick, a magic elixir. Those two performances raised the bar for me, in terms of performances, but they also said to me: There’s a big world out there, outside of ABC afterschool specials and Disney … Go out there and learn about it.

I worked as a page in a local library, and so I went to their entertainment biography section, in the back, up against the outer wall. When it was slow in the library, I browsed in that section. (I also peeked at the pictures of Joy of Sex, but that’s another post entirely.) Al Pacino was more difficult to research (in lo, those long-ago pre-Internet days), but James Dean was everywhere. I had a method to my madness. I took out each book on the shelf, and checked the index for references to James Dean. (I’m a librarian’s daughter, I know my way around).

I was not the Movie Trivia Goddess persona that I am now so I was probably looking for references to James Dean in the back of Mary Astor’s autobiography or a biography about Theda Bara. NO MATTER. It was methodical, and I actually did come up with a lot of great information that way. I would flip open said book to the page, and read whatever anecdote was there about James Dean. That’s how I learned about him, piece by piece. I learned about his motorcycle, his bongos, his probable bisexuality, I learned about Pier Angeli, and his insecurity around Marlon Brando, I learned that he wore glasses, I learned that he was roommates with someone named Martin Landau who took some phenomenal pictures of him, I learned about Elia Kazan for the first time (and I called him “Gadge” in my head, because everybody else seemed to), I learned about the Actors Studio … and then somehow I learned that Al Pacino was part of this Actors Studio as well … so I needed to know more about THAT. What was this “studio”? Where was it?

I always think of those feverish research moments in the library when I consider that later, many many years later, I would go to sessions at the Actors Studio, in a church on 44th Street, same place it’s always been, and sit in the balcony, and watch people work, watch Harvey Keitel moderate, or Lee Grant, or Estelle Parsons … I auditioned three times to get in, and kept telling myself, “Harvey Keitel auditioned ELEVEN TIMES … don’t give up hope!” The place oozes with atmosphere and ghosts. Marilyn Monroe worked on that “stage”, doing a scene from O’Neill’s Anna Christie, as onlookers (only members of the Studio are allowed in to watch) hung off the balconies. Ellen Burstyn has worked there. Everyone I admire has worked there. And I would have moments, walking up the stairs to the balcony of the “church”, to find a seat, and think of my 12 year old self, huddled in the back of the library, learning about this place in my desire to know everything there was to know about James Dean and Al Pacino.

I met Kazan once – at an Actors Studio function no less, and he was very much far-gone by that point, almost completely deaf, but I stared at his face as I shook his hand, and I found myself trembling with what that man has meant to me, what he provided me (and continues to provide me) and how I set myself the task as a kid to learn about this man. What was it? It’s rather an adult concern, isn’t it. I wasn’t doing my best to learn about my Fisher Price toys, or about Lance Kerwin … although I loved those things, too. But Kazan was someone I knew I needed to study. Why? I was speechless when I met him, and I could sense that anything I would say would probably be lost. He was too old, too deaf. But God. What an honor.

My frenzied 12-year-old “James Dean Index Search” led me to Carroll Baker’s Baby Doll. James Dean was in the Index quite a bit, so I took the book home with me and read it in a night. I was 12 years old. It’s rather a salacious book, at times, lots of sex, and infidelity, and smooching with someone named Ben Gazzara, and then there’s a section of sexual frigidity, and unhappiness, a nervous breakdown, I guess … I can’t have understood much of it. Or, I might have understood it, but I know that I also understood that this was a book for grownups. No matter: I was in it for the acting anecdotes and the stories about James Dean. Carroll Baker did not disappoint. I didn’t even know who she was then, and I had not yet seen Giant, although now I knew I HAD to, but her autobiography is a big juicy tell-all, not just of her sexual escapades (and actually, to be fair, she didn’t have that many – it just FELT that way to a 12 year old reading it) – but of her colleagues. I ate that shit UP. She was in Giant, of course, but I had never heard of her most notorious role – in Baby Doll, a strictly Actors Studio production if ever there was one. Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, Carroll Baker, and Elia Kazan directing. It would be a long time before I actually got to SEE Baby Doll. I was very familiar with 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (excerpt here), the short Tennessee Williams play that the film is based on. The tour de force scene between Flora (turned to “Baby Doll” in the film) and the vengeful Vicarro is well-trod ground in scene classes across the nation. It’s a perfectly constructed scene: two strong eccentric characters with battling objectives, a power struggle, and an eventual rape. Great stuff. I’ve played “Flora” in pretty much every acting class I’ve ever taken. It’s just one of THOSE scenes.

I think I finally saw Baby Doll in college. But by that point, I had memorized most of the scenes, having heard so much about them – not just from her book but from Elia Kazan’s masterpiece of an autobiography, which I read as soon as I could get my hands on it (“Oh, this is the scene on the swing …” “Oh, this is the scene in the crib …”) that I felt like it was already a known movie to me. And there she was: Carroll Baker, the woman who had written the autobiography that gave me such good information back when I was an OCD kid!

In a funny and sometimes peripheral way, Carroll Baker’s book was really my “way in” to that world I wanted so much to be a part of. She described the Studio to me, the rehearsals for Hat Full of Rain (a big hit which started as an Actors Studio project), the way the movie studio worked, what it was like in the commissary, what it meant to try to play a part … what did you need to draw on? If you had a personal arsenal, how would you know which weapon to pick? People like Kazan helped actors with that. Kazan would want you to draw on yourself, he was that kind of director, but he also was unafraid to get personal: If he knew you, and knew your issues (with your mother, father, with sex, your ex-husband, whatever) – he would pull you aside, and whisper something to you that would trigger a response that was perfect for the scene. Many people hated that kind of intimacy in working, it seemed manipulative and too personal – but of course Kazan got the results. Carroll Baker was a young actress at the time of Baby Doll, and had only done two movies before that one (one of which was Giant).

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Baker had devoted her time to studying at the Actors Studio, it was THE place to be at the time (mid-1950s) – not just for the opportunity to work on scenes and get involved in projects, but for the networking possibilities (a word I despise, but whatever, let it go). Baker didn’t want to just be famous. She wanted to be good. She worked hard. She was a pretty serious person, actually. Dare I say humorless? And some of the stories (at least one in the excerpt below) show that being too serious, or too eager to be “good” can lead to a kind of paralysis when the time comes to actually get up and do it. Carroll Baker knew that. Without the part of “Baby Doll Meighan” the rest of her career wouldn’t be possible.

Baby Doll was a notorious movie. It’s really quite bizarre, and I highly recommend it, if you haven’t seen it. Kazan loved it. Tennessee Williams’ play is quite tragic (although the actual title is: 27 Wagons Full of Cotton – A Mississippi Delta Comedy). Shades of Chekhov – who called all of his great plays “comedies” and would splutter with rage at the interpretation director Stanislavsky would put onto them at the Moscow Art Theatre. Why is everyone so dreary? Why is the mood so sad? Doesn’t he know this is a COMEDY? It’s an interesting view of comedy, more complex than what we are accustomed to. How can a play about a big rough boob of a man married to a woman who is obviously mentally disabled, who sleeps in a crib – grown woman! – and who has one desire in life: a neverending supply of Coca Cola … and the big rough boob of a man burns down his neighbor’s cotton gin, in order to boost his own business, and then – in the climax scene – allows said evil neighbor to rape his wife, so that they will be “even” … how can such a play be a “comedy”? Is Tennessee Williams insane?

But I do think it’s important to remember that “comedy” is in the title, when playing those characters – don’t lose sight of that! And Kazan didn’t either. Baby Doll, the movie, is a delightful weird little romp, whimsical, amusing, with slapstick elements, people running around the house, slamming doors, etc. The rape is soft-pedaled and becomes more of a mutual seduction (and there are elements of that in the play as well … Flora likes being raped, she enjoys being hurt). Kazan saw the whole thing as funny. “Baby Doll” is not a tragic nitwit. She’s an adorable little creature, who is unfortunately manhandled by her ridiculous husband (played by Karl Malden in the movie) and finds a fun and silly playmate in the vaguely sinister yet sexy neighbor Vicarro (played by Eli Wallach). Vicarro does not come across as strictly a predator in the film. He is hot for her, yes, and he looks at her and thinks, along the lines of Rhett Butler, “This woman needs to be kissed … and often …” You’re actually happy for her that she found someone who “gets” her, who doesn’t make fun of her or make her feel stupid.

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Baby Doll caused a shitstorm upon release. The Catholic Church condemned it. Morality groups across the nation began screaming at the tops of their lungs. The billboard in Times Square, stretching an entire city block, was Carroll Baker, in a “baby doll” dress, lying on her side in her crib, sucking her thumb. It was perverse! I love it!

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It put Carroll Baker on the map, forever and always. And in a funny way, her career never recovered. She was NOT a sexpot. Her sensuality was a more subtle and pained thing, perfect for Tennessee Williams. I’d have loved to see her play Blanche Dubois (excerpt here), or Princess from Sweet Bird of Youth (excerpt here). If she had been born a decade later, she would have flourished in the burgeoning independent film movement in the late 60s and 70s.

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As it was, in the 50s, she became relatively un-place-able although she kept working. Because of that billboard, because of the controversy surrounding the film, she was labeled as “sexy”, and she had a very hard time in more conventional sexy roles. It wasn’t her “thing”. It didn’t come naturally to her. But that didn’t matter. She had become pigeonholed very early, and she could not get the parts she wanted to get, she could not escape the shadow of that billboard to save her life.

The movies she was in became less and less worthy of her, although there is much to recommend some of them. The Carpetbaggers is very good (with a couple of famous scenes – the chandelier, the nude scene at the mirror) …

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She also got a key part in How the West Was Won, which she says was her favorite movie ever, and her best working experience. She and Debbie Reynolds became best friends, and remain so to this day.

Then came Harlow in 1965. Baker was cast as Jean Harlow.

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It was an unhappy shooting, nobody knew what they were doing, it was thrown together at the last minute, and very sloppy. Baker, the “good” actress who had been trained well, did her research, took it seriously, tried to embody Harlow (although, frankly, she is terribly miscast) – and the results are terrible. It’s inaccurate, in terms of Harlow, and dead, in terms of its energy. The playful sexiness of Jean Harlow had nothing to do with who Carroll Baker is, was, or could even embody. She looks uncomfortable. It’s just not “right”. Not every actress can play everything. It made matters worse that only a month before the release of Baker’s Harlow, another movie called Harlow was also released, starring Carol Linley. Terrible timing. Despite that fact, Baker’s Harlow did better at the box office than Linley’s Harlow, but it wasn’t enough to save the film from disaster, or to save Carroll Baker from taking the fall for its failure. She eventually was let out of her contract at Paramount, after a messy ugly battle.

If you look at Baker’s IMDB page, you can see a two-year gap after Harlow. Work dried up. Carroll Baker ended up moving to Europe, and working there, primarily – she could get jobs, probably way more interesting than what she was struggling for at the studio … and she could regroup. She worked in France, Spain, Italy. Over two decades passed. Her American career was over. She did stage work. She got married (for the third and last time – they stayed married until his death last year).

And I remember this well: Suddenly, in 1987, a movie called Ironweed came out. I was in college at the time, deeply engrossed in my own acting training, and we were all insane to see this movie – with two of our collective acting idols playing off of each other – Streep and Nicholson. Mitchell and I went to see it together. There is one scene where Nicholson’s character goes home to visit his long-suffering wife, who has “let her husband go”, because he has become a bum and a drunk. It is a haunting scene, full of silences, and broken dreams … it’s one of the best scenes in the film. When I think of Ironweed now, I think of Streep singing in the bar, and also the scene between Nicholson and his gentle plump wife, who still loves him, you can tell, but how do you love someone who has decided to leap off the grid? Her tragedy emanates off of the screen, and she never says a word. The dead baby is IN that scene, never referred to, but hovering between them.

When the credits rolled at the end, I felt a jolt when I saw “Carroll Baker” go rolling by.

I don’t know – I have this connection to her. I associate her with being young and eager and discovering who I really am. That was what was going on in those library shelves. I was discovering and embracing who I really am, who I would become. There is much in my childhood that does not feel connected at all to who I am now … but that? My research, self-directed and self-perpetuating? It doesn’t matter that I was only 12 years old. That girl is ME.

So seeing her name in the credits: Carroll Baker? Was that THE Carroll Baker? The photos in her autobiography came to my mind, her delicate pretty face, the small mouth, the tall forehead. That was her! That wife in Ironweed was her! I hadn’t thought about Carroll Baker’s career in a long time. Her book came out in 1983, before Ironweed, and it ended with her being satisfied with her European acting career and her stage work. But there she was … and I was so, weirdly, HAPPY for her. Not just happy that she was back in a high-profile picture again but that she was so damn GOOD. I thought she should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Yes, her screen time is not very extensive – but Beatrice Straight won the Academy Award for Network and she had much less screen time than Baker did!

Ironweed did not resurrect her career into something more steady. She wrote novels, she appeared in lots of television, and you know what? She’s still out there. I don’t know what she’s doing, but, as always, I hope it is interesting, and I hope she is okay with it. Her book “pointed the way” – it showed me the kind of life I wanted to have – one that was about work, and collaboration, and theatre.

There are many better autobiographies out there. But Baby Doll is the one I most cherish.

Here’s an excerpt – from the shooting of Baby Doll. Kazan liked to shoot on location as much as possible – so for Baby Doll the entire cast and crew went down to Mississippi, and holed up there for a couple of months, shooting everything in and around that particular town.

Carroll Baker had had a nice small part in Giant and she did a good job.

But Baby Doll was a lead. And this was no ordinary picture. This required acting chops. Bravery. A sense of safety mixed with courage. It’s a weird movie, I don’t want to paint a picture of it that is not accurate, but it’s fun. It stands alone in Kazan’s canon, that’s for sure. It is mostly unclassifiable – Wallach is awesome in it, Malden is hysterical and awful – and you cannot take your eyes off of Carroll Baker. I like, too, in the anecdotes below, how open she is about how “green” she was an actor. You get more ease with more experience … but she wasn’t there yet. This was her chance, her big break, she knew it … and so she tossed herself into it with an earnestness that is touching to me, even as it shows her inexperience.

EXCERPT FROM Baby Doll, by Carroll Baker

Gadge was earthy and completely approachable. He made everyone involved in the project feel like a full participant. His crew would have walked through fire for him, because no other director had ever made them sense that enormous satisfaction of being an equal contributor to the whole. On his sets, everyone was encouraged to come forward with an idea. When Gadge had a problem he discussed it openly. For example, the opening shot of the film was of the old Southern mansion. Gadge was concerned that the audience might get the impression of a period piece. It was a gaffer who stepped forward and said, “Hey, Gadge, why not wait until a jet plane flies overhead?” It was a brilliant idea which Gadge jumped at, one by the way which has been imitated many times since. Imagine the feeling of pride that will forever be with that gaffer!

I had a scene in which I was waiting in the open car for Archie Lee. The script indicated that all of the local men standing outside the store made fun of Archie Lee as he exited the store and walked to the car. Because the whole town knew that the marriage had not been consummated and that Baby Doll was still a virgin, the local men were always jeering. Gadge also wanted something visual to hinge the laughter on. He asked Karl and me, “Can either of you think of something that you might be doing? Something that might motivate the jeering?” I said, “My daddy was a traveling salesman, and whenever I used to wait for him in the car, he would always bring me an ice cream cone.” Gadge threw his cap down in the dusty street and stamped and hollered for joy. “That’s perfect, perfect,” he howled. “It will make Archie Lee feel silly and doubly humiliated having to cross in front of the guys with a dripping ice cream cone. It is a perfect childish prop for you. I’ll shoot Archie Lee’s reactions and those of the crowd as you lick the cone, and we’ll have our sexual connotations there, too.” Even now, whenever I remember this, the pride I felt at having my idea accepted rushes back to me.

An “activity” suggestion of mine which Gadge went for in a big way was used during the “bathroom scene”. Archie Lee stands outside the bathroom talking to Baby Doll through the closed door while she takes her bath. We had naturally thought of the toy boats and rubber ducks for Baby Doll, but I suggested that, during the dialogue, Baby Doll be washing her laundry in the tub along with herself. It was wonderfully tacky. And Gadge also let me wear a funny, unflattering shower cap halfway down my forehead, with my ears sticking out. What joy it was to work with him on the comedy.

The end of that scene, by the way, is when Archie Lee can’t contain his lasciviousness any longer, and we see him rush into the bathroom. Off-camera we hear the sound of his splashing into the tub over Baby Doll’s howls of protest.

Before leaving for the location I had seen my first pair of Baby Doll pajamas in a New York store window. I couldn’t resist the tie-in with my character’s name, so I bought them on the spot and took them with me to Benoit. Both Anna Hill Johnstone, the costume designer, and Gadge thought that those rompers were perfect for my initial crib scene. Too bad I had no marketing sense then, because I never requested a cent for having made those Baby Doll pajamas so famous.

Other than the pajamas, Anna Hill and I shopped locally for my clothes. They had to be inexpensive and a couple of sizes too small, as if I had grown out of them. We came across a silly little white-satin pancake hat. The moment I saw that ridiculous hat I went mad for it. Anna Hill agreed that Baby Doll would be pretentious enough to wear a hat, along with her best suit, when going for a drive in Archie Lee’s rattling, decrepit, mud-caed car. That satin pancake was the most chic and expensive hat in all Benoit. It cost $12.95, and Anna Hill even went so far as to give Baby Doll a pair of short, white gloves to complete her ensemble during her simple outings. What laughs we had while coming up with one outrageous idea after another! I believe Gadge wet his pants when Karl suggested that Baby Doll would be snotty enough to insist upon riding in the back seat of the old Chevy, making Archie Lee chauffeur her to town.

My most difficult acting scene was the one I call the “pig-sty scene”. Although I can’t remember any longer why Baby Doll was so upset, the scene called for hysterical crying and then laughter and tears together. I knew that if I was to continue fierce crying and add simultaneous laughter, I would have to enter the scene fully sobbing my heart out. I went behind the barn to do my preparation – hours and hours of preparation! I thought of every terrible memory I possibly could, and although I felt like hell, no tears would come. Finally our cameraman, Boris Kaufman, told Gadge, “I’m afraid we will have to shoot it right now or else postpone it until tomorrow because the light is going.”

Gadge came to me and said, “We can’t wait for you any longer, Carroll. Never mind. We’ll do the scene without tears.”

I was so humiliated to have kept Gadge and Eli and all the crew waiting all afternoon, and so frustrated over my lack of ability that while running to my position in front of the pig sty I burst into the most gorgeous, sloppy tears. My feelings swelled and overflowed convulsively into laughter, making it my most effective scene. But alas, the audience will never share that opinion. Flushed as I was with my histrionic triumph, I failed to notice that in the background those squealing, snorting, grunting, groveling, farting little piggies were completely stealing the scene away from me.

Gadge never wanted his cast to be aware of the camera. No technician was to worry the actors about a difficulty with the sound or the lights. Our concentration was given the highest priority. During the camera rehearsals, Gadge went so far as to whisper his instructions to the crew, to protect us from any concern about the technical aspects.

No scene was rigidly plotted, so during a take the camera operator was trained to follow the actors whatever they might do, to be alert for any unexpected movement or gesture, and to guide the camera accordingly. If we begin to edge out of frame and there was a split-second decision to be made, the operator knew that Gadge relied on him not to halt, but to make that decision. At one moment in the “swing scene”, my head drifted sideways and hung over the swing nearly to the ground. It was lovely the way the operator caught that spontaneous dip.

Under no circumstances did any of us, in front of or behind the camera, stop or cut a take. Even if we said the wrong line or there was a technical hitch, we continued until Gadge called out, “Cut.” He sometimes loved the effect created by a mistake. He often allowed the film to roll after the completion of the dialogue in order to capture some lingering expression or an added thought.

We had a scene on an outdoor double-seated swing where Vicarro seduces Baby Doll. I doubt that Eli and I could have done that provocative, sultry “swing scene” without the thoroughly professional, no-silly-jokes attitude on a Kazan set. I certainly would never had the concentration and courage to allow myself to become so totally passionate, or the security and willingness to reveal the depth of what was happening to me.

Given that ideal working atmosphere, the youthful enthusiasm with which I threw myself into the character, the story, and the relationship, I underwent the emotional confusion often felt by actors. The way I treated sweet, darling Karl Malden must have been intolerable for him. I thought so long and hard about my resentment and physical abhorrence of Archie Lee that I couldn’t just turn it off. I’m sure Karl felt some of that attitude unintentionally directed at him. Mildred Dunnock resigned herself to my petulance toward her at one moment and protectiveness the next. I think she understood that for the duration of the film, I was going to relate to her as Aunt Rose Comfort. And gentle, refined Eli Wallach loomed in my imagination as that frightening, callous brute Silvo Vicarro, to whom I was also irresistably drawn. I soon found myself besotted by Eli/Vicarro.

Eli, however, could never quite take me seriously. He forever had a twinkle of understanding in his sparkling, dancing eyes. Whether I was showing an exaggerated fear of him or a scorching fervor, he regarded me quite rightly as an overimaginative, overheated pubescent. But that didn’t dampen my ardor or keep me from making a complete fool of myself. I might as well describe how wrapped up I was in the Stanislavski method and how I behaved offscreen during the “unsatisfactory supper scene,” because it is no secret any more – thanks to Eli.

In this scene, Aunt Rose Comfort is in the kitchen preparing her unsatisfactory supper, and Archie Lee is at the daft old lady’s side, harassing her. Vicarro and I are kissing in the hallway just outside the kitchen. Vicarro and I then enter the kitchen with telltale smears of lipstick on our faces and our clothes askew.

Although they had finished filming Eli and me kissing, and had moved the camera away from us and into the kitchen set, I didn’t release Eli. Since we were supposed to re-enter dishevelled and breathless and flushed, I just wouldn’t stop kissing him. All through the lengthy dialogue between Milly and Karl, as well as several takes of that scene, I had Eli pinned against the outside wall of the set in an endless, inescapable kiss. Now another method actress might possibly kiss once again, so as to enter in the called-for emotional state, but no halfway preparation for this method actress. I wasn’t willing to let one puff of steam evaporate. It was only the cue to enter the scene that saved Eli from being utterly suffocated by my determined and feverish assault.

Eli must have been surprised at first, then curious to see how far I intended to go, possibly a bit flattered, no doubt somewhat excited himself, and certainly amused. The last must be true, because I have never been able to shut him up about this indiscretion. That devil has told that story around the world, and it has been repeated to me by journalists from Calcutta to Chicago, and from Tallahassee to Bangkok. There is no way I can ever hope to live it down.

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2 Responses to Happy Birthday, Carroll Baker

  1. bybee says:

    I want to see a movie of hers called Sylvia (1965).

  2. Rob says:

    I also read Carroll’s autobiography at WAY too early an age (the only film of hers I’d seen was Harlow, and at that age, my melodramatic gay young self found it tragic and moving– now, of course, it seems pretty terrible indeed) but her intelligence really appealed to me; she took her work so seriously, and as you say, she so wanted to be good at what she did, which is always so admirable.
    Later on, after seeing Giant and the Carpetbaggers, I formulated a snap critical analysis of her, which still works for me today: She’s least sexy when she’s trying to be sexy, and sexiest when she’s not trying at all! Perfect example: Luz, the ‘realest” character in Giant, to me. And I bet being sexy wasn’t even anything that interested her most of the time (in my awful, roundabout way, what I’m saying is she affected me most, and touched me, when she was just allowed to “inhabit’, rather than embody the surface, as I’m sure she was directed to do in Harlow and Carpetbaggers).
    Question for you, Ms. O’Malley: Re-reading Baby Doll quite a few years back, she referred a few times to “the James Dean wanna-be” (words to that effect) and my assumption was that she was referring to Dennis Hopper, any thoughts?

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