Happy Birthday, Dorothy Malone

The actress – whose career spanned over 50 years, died in 2018 at the age of 93. She was an Oscar-winning actress who “ended up” on television in Peyton Place, a choice many at the time thought was insane. Television had no cache. It wasn’t legitimate like film or theatre. But Malone’s instincts were right. Peyton Place was a smash hit and a cultural flash-point. Peyton Place was an early example of “appointment television.”

Dorothy Malone, and fellow “Peyton Place” cast member, Gena Rowlands

My first exposure to Malone – as is probably true of most people – was in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, where she is unforgettable in her one scene in the bookshop with Humphrey Bogart. Malone’s nameless bookstore clerk is one of the few truly liberated women in cinema. I don’t know anyone who isn’t affected by this scene in a primal way. Men never forget her. Women find her aspirational. A lesbian friend of mine – normally very articulate – can’t even discuss the scene. “Forget it. I’m hers forever.”

Liberation isn’t just about being able to say “no.” Saying “no” is important. But true liberation comes when you are able to say “yes” – to feel the “yes” within you before he even says anything and then moving forward to get what you want. It’s such a great scene showing what this “saying ‘yes'” can look like, starting with his questioning of her and then ending with what is obviously going to be afternoon delight … among the stacks … among the stacks! Malone makes such an impression you keep hoping she’ll return. (It’s a bold move to put such a strong female character in the film, since it’s mainly a vehicle for Bacall and Bogart. But Bogart, in the film, is surrounded by viable alternatives, including the sassy cab driver who gives him her card – yet another liberated woman.) Most men would overlook Malone’s character at first glance, or at least not perceive the sexual potential. She’s not a bombshell. She’s not a vamp. She looks prim and proper. But she’s a smart cookie, and – importantly – smart about what she’s feeling in the moment (not too many people are). She feels the heat with this stranger – feels how hot she is for him – and decides to act upon it. Without shame, without coyness, without anything other than a frank admission of her own desire.

She takes off her glasses.

And, to quote my friend: “Forget it.”

In 1956, of course, Dorothy Malone won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as quintessential “bad girl” in Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind. David Lynch is on record with his love for Written on the Wind. I always thought he was referencing Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind with this shot in Lost Highway.

I was so happy to pay tribute to Dorothy Malone for Film Comment.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

This entry was posted in Actors, Movies, On This Day and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Happy Birthday, Dorothy Malone

  1. Regina Bartkoff says:


    One of my all time favorites Dorothy Malone! And I love your tribute to her on Film Comment! Bogart looks like he’s getting a big kick out of her in that scene in The Big Sleep! I would see her in a movie and think, who is that?! The Last Voyage, Dorothy Malone, Look it up and again, Dorothy Malone. Basic Instinct. Well, Who is that?!! Dorothy Malone. Her face had a timeless quality reminding me of a pre Edie Sedgewick, and she could be as wild as she was. But her acting chops! And she was ahead of her time. Cagney loved her too, she played such an unsympathetic part in Man of a thousand faces but does it so well. She wants no part of that deaf/mute family! And I haven’t seen all her movies yet!

    • sheila says:

      Regina – I could definitely see you kicking ass in “Dorothy Malone roles” – there’s that abandon, but also the repression of said abandon – which makes for all this great tension!

      I so agree that Bogart really enjoys her – in my research I was just shocked to find that this was her first speaking role. !!!! and Dorothy Malone wasn’t “like this” at ALL – she was a very good girl, and actually walked off the set on one movie when a director ignored her request to not swear so much. She reminisced that she was so nervous for that scene in Big Sleep her hands were shaking uncontrollably. I love so much that she got her shit together enough to give that performance – opposite one of the biggest stars in the world – under such enormous pressure. Talent!

      // Cagney loved her too. //

      Game recognize game!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.