Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep: “She Got the Idea All Right.”


Martha Vickers, a young pretty actress, was unforgettable and creepy as the sociopathic thumb-sucking nymphomaniac in The Big Sleep. How on earth did THAT get by the censors??

There’s a really cute story about her and the filming of The Big Sleep – I came across it first, I think, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. But the anecdote also shows up in a couple of Bogart biographies – the story was told by multiple people – all of whom witnessed it, so I guess we can assume that something along these lines occurred. I just love everyone involved in the following anecdote. I love it for the kindness shown to her, but also that it really does reveal the mystery of what is called “acting”. You don’t just need to draw from your own experiences. That is a misunderstanding of what acting is – and you can definitely see it when certain actors attempt Shakespeare, and what they do is try to drag, oh, King Lear down to THEIR level, where it can be understood by them. How can I “relate” to Macbeth? How about I try to just imagine what it was like for HIM? This is obviously way easier said than done, but this anecdote about Martha Vickers is a small slice of life showing that you don’t need to just draw on what you yourself have experienced. If you have an imagination, you can play anything.

Good for her for just going with it. She could have been mortified, humiliated, and damaged. But first of all – these big macho guys all treated her quite nicely, despite the obvious, uhm, fact of her inexperience … they did not shame her … and second of all … she obviously just listened, took it in, “took the coaching”, and went forth and played that part to the best of her ability. She’s terrific.

So here it is:

Howard Hawks had an idea for one of the scenes – where Marlowe (Bogart) comes into the house, and finds Vickers sitting, all dressed up in the empty house – drugged out, sexed up, in the aftermath of some sexual event. Marlowe can immediately tell that obviously some kind of porno photo shoot had been going on. And Marlowe comes upon her, she is high on drugs, and completely out of it. Anyway, Hawks had an idea for this scene (which ended up not making it into the movie – no wonder, with the censorship of the day!): He wanted Vickers to simulate an orgasm, as she sat there, looking up at Bogart. He wanted her to be in that quivery zone where you basically don’t even need physical contact to “get there” – he wanted her to be the kind of woman who lives in that state.

So Hawks asked her to do so. He gave her this piece of direction in front of Bogart, Regis Toomey (who plays the DA – wonderful stolid character actor), and a couple of other people, members of the crew, etc. You know, moviemaking has a mystique about it but there is also a no-nonsense quality to it that I find refreshing.

Hawks said, “Sweetheart, what we want here is for you to simulate that you’re having an orgasm.”

Martha Vickers asked, “What’s an orgasm?”

Nobody spoke. Nobody knew what to do. They all just stood there, awkward as hell, stunned to silence. Hawks, Bogart, and Toomey – grown men – standing there with a teenage actress – who was asking them (in all innocence) what an orgasm was. Dead silence. Hawks called a 10-minute break. (hahahaha) I mean – what else could you do? Hawks then pulled Toomey aside and asked Toomey to please go and “explain to Miss Vickers what an orgasm is”. I love that Howard Hawks, supposedly the most macho guy in the universe, couldn’t bring himself to go explain it to her – he had to have someone else go do it.

Toomey, who apparently was a good-natured fellow, married with a bunch of kids, the product of a strict Irish Catholic upbringing, gamely went over to Martha and explained to her what an orgasm was. (Wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that one.)

Toomey said later to Bogart, “The girl didn’t know anything. I asked, ‘Are you a virgin?’ ‘Uh yes.’ ‘Do you know what an orgasm is? Mr. Hawks wants you to be having an orgasm here.’ ‘No, I don’t know what it is.’ ‘You don’t know what an orgasm is?’ ‘No.’ And so, dammit, I explained to her what an orgasm was. And she got the idea all right. Howard liked the scene very much.”

“She got the idea all right.”

Bless you, Martha Vickers! And bless you, Regis Toomey!

After that, it became a huge joke amongst the three men.

Hawks would say to Toomey, “If I ever have to explain an orgasm to anyone again, I am calling on you.” And Bogie would laugh and laugh like a madman.


Clip from The Big Sleep below, of the scene in question. Seriously: this young actress who led a protected innocent life – gives a HELL of a performance.


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8 Responses to Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep: “She Got the Idea All Right.”

  1. george says:

    Great story. I would not have believed it (innocence) of her, seeing that performance. She’s good, she’s very good.

  2. red says:

    Very good. It’s a truly “mad” performance – really really creepy I think.

  3. tracey says:

    She’s amazing. You know, something about her seems very modern to me, as well, as if she sort of transcends that era even. Wow.

  4. red says:

    Tracey – totally. She really just goes there – in a very modern Method-acting kind of way – I would never have believed that she WASN’T that trampy girl. But she lived at home with her mother and was a good girl, and just had heaps of talent.

    There is nothing dated or actress-y about her portrayal.

    I would love to have heard her version of the events that day and what Toomey said to her and how she interpreted it.

  5. red says:

    And also, I know I’m nuts, but whatever – it is my own private hope that Martha Vickers went home that night and figured out for herself what Toomey was talking about.

    But that’s just me.

    I basically hope that for everyone.

  6. tracey says:

    Kinda like Todd’s Mom, you know?

    Yes, I hope so, too.

  7. red says:


    I love that however Regis Toomey explained it to her, it obviously worked – she let her imagination go – and then just played it. Good for her.

  8. Glenn Hubbard says:

    I just saw The Big Sleep on TCM. I was struck by how hot that scene was! It had a touch of modern sex appeal. It hurts she died at 46. My sister died at 45. Stupid cancer.

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