“Only the bad directors tell you how to read a line, how to define your character. The good ones let you do your job.” — Carroll Baker

It’s her birthday today.

When you look back on your life – especially once you’re, how you say, OLD – it’s sometimes interesting to try to untangle some of the strands, the things that happened that made you who you are, and try to find the source, the start, the beginning. Sometimes certain people take on gigantic significance when you look back on things from a distance. Carroll Baker is one of those people for me. She was the gateway.

Or … James Dean was the start, but her autobiography was the gateway, which I read at the tender age of 12/13, having somehow tripped over it in the library where I worked after school. It was James Dean that was the attraction: I saw East of Eden and began scouring the index pages of actor biographies looking for his name. (I am not a librarian’s daughter for nothing.) This is how I found her autobiography, which I DEVOURED.

Her autobiography is not all that great, really, but something in it grabbed hold of me, and I followed the bread crumbs to other books, conducting my own independent research project, reading books and watching movies, educating myself. Learning of Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg. 15 years later, I’d end up in New York, at the Actors Studio, taking classes in the room where Carroll Baker had taken classes … and it all made a kind of sense. There were so many things that went into my Strasberg-ian path – even though my first acting training (my favorite training) was Meisner – but Sanford Meisner was part of that whole crowd. I loved everything to do with that whole crowd. And I first learned about them because of Carroll Baker. I went into this whole thing in excruciating detail in a post I wrote years ago about her autobiography – in a weird way, that little cheap paperback was one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It was the start of it all.

I haven’t even written a word about Carroll Baker’s actual career yet. This is how deeply entangled she is in my actual development as a human.

When she showed up in Ironweed a couple years later, I felt a jolt of excitement and happiness. THERE SHE IS. I felt like I KNEW her.

This backstory is why being asked by Criterion to write the booklet essay for the release of Something Wild (1961) – directed by her husband at the time, Jack Garfein, and starring Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker, was such an emotional thing. It felt … right. It felt like part of the continuum started when I first read her autobiography. I had been inspired by Carroll Baker as a teenager (even though she barely mentions Something Wild in her book. She devotes pages to her affair with Ben Gazzara but only one line to this great film, one of her best performances!). If you haven’t seen Something Wild, then you really must.

For years it was virtually un-seeable. It was never on DVD until 2011. It was “lost.” Not anymore. Here’s my booklet essay for the Criterion release.

Then: In 2016, Giant screened at the Film Forum for its 60th anniversary, and Carroll Baker was in attendance for a QA. Here’s a transcript.

Happy birthday, Carroll Baker. You’re somehow wound up in my own journey towards taking acting seriously and wanting to be good at it.

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2 Responses to “Only the bad directors tell you how to read a line, how to define your character. The good ones let you do your job.” — Carroll Baker

  1. Susan Jackson Bybee says:

    I am absolutely captivated at the image of 12-13 year old you looking through the index of actor biographies for mentions of James Dean.

    I haven’t seen Something Wild yet. My favorite Carroll Baker movie is Sylvia.

    • sheila says:

      I was dedicated AND I knew how to “use” books because of my dad! I HAD to know more, lol!!

      Sylvia! yes! Something Wild is inTENSE – she basically never mentioned it, because her marriage broke up and it was a tough shoot – which is a shame because I would have loved to hear her recount her experiences making this incredibly difficult film. I highly recommend it – tough watch!

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