The first crush I ever had on a TV or movie star was Julie Newmar in the role of Catwoman on the Batman TV series. I remember vividly the stirrings of fear and desire that were conjured up in me upon first seeing her in that costume, and then every time after that when I had even but an inkling that she would be reappearing on the show to test the wits and strength of the Dynamic Duo. That Newmar-inspired fear, which was really the first stirrings of lust in the heart of a then-six-year-old boy, often manifested itself in nightmares, visitations by the Catwoman as she floated over my bed, like a feline succubus in black-and-gold lame, silken cat ears and coyly revealing face mask, often flanked by a couple of her extremely nonthreatening henchmen. Julie Newmar set the template of sensual and sexual attraction for me very early on—strong, seductive, sometimes violent females, capable of holding their own amongst the men who would either hold them in check, lash out against them or conspire in some way to keep them down. Claudia Cardinale, Sophia Loren, Pam Grier, Ann-Margret and Michelle Yeoh would all occupy the same position of honor in my affections at one point or another in my development as a teenager and a cinephile. Had I encountered her in any significant way during that time, I’m pretty sure Angie Dickinson would have slipped under my youthful radar.
My interest and fascination with Angie is, instead, a late, retroactive one, and much more satisfying so, I think— the fascination roughly fits my particular mold in terms of her basic appeal, but it seems to be most clearly expressed in a more adult-oriented sensibility of appreciation. Angie never was the ostentatiously libidinous villainess, or the outsized, overripe sexpot, or the hyperactively alluring Vegas-style entertainer, or the carnal and deadly action star, or the lithe and transcendently kinetic martial arts heroine. For me, her appeal was rooted in the earthy splendor best displayed by Feathers in Rio Bravo. The role could have been simply female diversion—some might argue, and successfully, that that is exactly what it is. But I think Dickinson’s easy manner, her sense of playfulness in her scenes with John Wayne, her refusal to be intimidated by him either as an actor/icon, or in her encounters with Wayne’s John T. Chance, and what That Little Round-headed Boy accurately describes as her casual beauty, allows Dickinson to reveal more than that diminutive “female diversion” might allow. Feathers stands toe-to-toe with the men and the boys on Hawks’ canvas of loyalty and controlled action-- she demands respect, and makes no apologies, for seeing the world the way she sees it.
Her devastating, rather understated beauty is central to her appeal in Rio Bravo and, I think, throughout her career. The fact that she registers first as a “real” woman, that is, not a spectacular, unattainable caricature, but as someone whose essence seems grounded in the everyday, the recognizable, is what makes the gradual revelation of just how lovely a presence she is in films as varied as The Bramble Bush, The Chase, Ocean’s Eleven, Rome Adventure, Jessica, The Killers, Point Blank, Sam Whiskey and Pretty Maids All in a Row eventually so, well, devastating.
However, while reserving spots for Rio Bravo, Point Blank and Dressed to Kill as perhaps the best movies Angie Dickinson ever appeared in, I would agree with those who cite Big Bad Mama as perhaps her best role, and perhaps even her finest hour as an actress. It’s an excellent showcase for the particular brand of earthy, genuine manner and humor she accesses, leavened, of course, by that unassuming, unadorned beauty, and all mixed up with a unapologetic and brazen sexuality (the kind only hinted at in her previous roles), a measure of maternal compulsion, and the kind of violent bravado that was not out of place amongst Roger Corman’s New World Pictures at the time. The template for the picture is, of course, Bonnie and Clyde, and while the movie cuts nowhere as deep as Arthur Penn’s picture, it’s still a lively, funny ride, an ostensibly new wineskin filled almost to bursting with admittedly old wine—the heady excitement and eventual comeuppance of gangsters on the run in 1930s America wasn’t exactly a new tale even when Penn told it (in that instance, the old wineskin did indeed bust wide open), but director Steve Carver’s movie opened it up with a kind of B-movie brio that would prove profitable for Corman, as well as for several producers of similar gangster movies that would follow in its dusty, bloody trail throughout the ‘70s.
But I’ll leave the movie to others whose enthusiasm for it matches mine even as their words engage it with the kind of ease of articulation and perception that I’m not capable of mustering as the hour grows late. Instead, Big Bad Mama, and indeed the essence of the allure of Angie Dickinson, for me can be boiled down to a single shot in that movie. It’s a moment that encapsulates all the qualities of her physical presence, which, I think it can be argued successfully, is the sturdy foundation on which her very real, if modest, talents as an actress are built. (Anyone who doubts her ability to conjure coiled, feral energy and focus with laser precision on the weary disgust of a fashion-plate femme fatale really ought to get themselves hence to John Boorman’s Point Blank, and then contrast this character turn with Maria Bello’s rather more well-trodden approach in Brian Helgeland’s terrific, if more conventional, Point Blank remake, Payback.)
Mama, known to everyone else but her daughters as Wilma McClatchie, has returned to the arms of Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) one last time, in a hay loft on the farm where Wilma’s gang has being hiding out. Yes, this is the scene every teenaged boy who saw Big Bad Mama in 1974 and has held it near and dear to their hearts ever since remembers with absolute clarity— the shocking moment when Wilma/Angie rises up from the arms of Fred/Tom, reacting the noises being made by a posse that is about to lay siege to that farm and engage her gang in a fatal gun battle. Wilma crosses in front of the camera toward the barn door, revealing herself to be completely and totally nude—a surprising and quite welcome display by Angie Dickinson that even today puts most pneumatically engineered porn starlets and their relentlessly manufactured eroticism to sad shame.
But it’s the moment when Wilma/Angie begins to steel herself for that gun battle that I find to be the height of the film’s fusion of sexuality, eroticism and violence. Framed by the hay loft door, looking down over the courtyard at the entrance to the farm where her pursuers have started to make themselves known, Wilma, holding her pistol, breasts still exposed, gathers up her slip over herself in a series of modest moves, all the while talking (To Fred? Her daughters? Her soon-to-be attackers? I admit I don’t remember to whom) and readying her pistol for the defensive task at hand. The simple eroticism of this shot, the actress’s economical, expressive movement, and the projection of the inescapable trajectory of violence that has now fused itself permanently with her maternal instincts by the presence of the gun, strikes me as easily the visual highlight of the film. In fact, when I saw Big Bad Mama recently on DVD, the moment seemed to me to be one of the most genuinely, poignantly, expressively sexy images I could recall seeing in a movie.
Angie Dickinson is arguably more famous for her role as Pepper Anderson on TV’s Police Woman series, which ran for four years, than for any single movie, or perhaps for her entire movie career. Though Police Woman often stuck her in vaguely demeaning hooker/stripper guises in order to lure criminals to their date with the law, often emphasizing Lt. Bill Crowley (Earl Holliman) as her unlikely savior, it was steady, high-profile work, and she certainly got to do more during the run of Police Woman than she ever did in a typically small role like the one she played in The Chase. (And no matter how traditional his male-dominant role in the series, I always imagined Angie could mop the floor up with Earl pretty handily.) But for many I suspect her Wilma McClatchie, Big Bad Mama herself, has reserved a much softer spot in their cinematic hearts. For me, discovering the movie as a grown-up, rather than as a testosterone-fueled teen at my local drive-in in 1974, it cements the grown-up appeal Dickinson held for me in Rio Bravo, Point Blank and Dressed to Kill as a sex symbol grounded in a happily recognizable standard of beauty. All the photographs and stills you’ll see during today’s Angie Dickinson Blog-a-Thon show that beauty to be timeless, and it still shines through Angie v.2006. Her movies, even the least memorable of them, testify to a different kind of beauty though, the kind informed by the magic that the cinema can bring to an actress to make her live and breathe for us, to make her more “real.” The movies featuring Angie Dickinson prove that a cinematic sex symbol need not seem larger than life. Indeed, for my money, it’s her connection to the truer dimensions of that life, with all its attendant humanity, grace, failures, and even acceding to the inevitability of aging, that ushers her into the pantheon of the movies’ greatest beauties.
There are other contributions to the Angie Dickinson Blog-a-Thon that will provide you with much reading enjoyment today. This list will undoubtedly expand as the day moves along, but for right now you might click on the following to get that Angie fix:
Steven Carlson checks in on The Three Faces of Angie, one of them being the little seen Big Bad Mama II, over at The Ongoing Cinematic Education of Steven Carlson.
Flickhead has a great overview of Angie's career, as well as his usual keen observtions: "Ultimately what purpose does she serve other than to let us know all is right with the world?... Angie flowered in an era that went gaga over smoldering, busty exotics and amazons: Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Senta Berger, Anita Ekberg. But wisely and logically, she never tried to compete. Hers is a soft sexuality, warm and genuine, merry narrow-eyes and a slight lisp, the promise of a pleasant time in the sack and blueberry pancakes in the morning."
Look to That Little Round-Headed Boy for an investigation into "The Enduring Mystery of Angie Dickinson," seen largely through the prism of Big Bad Mama: "Angie Dickinson is a gorgeous, gorgeous woman, with one of the most casually beautiful bodies ever put on screen. But is she much of an actress?... She could have been a '60s-'70s Lauren Bacall, a topline star of slow-burning insouciance who attracted the men but didn't turn off the women. She had the legs, she had the bust, she had the pert blond hair and most important, she had the voice. Angie Dickinson's voice is truly what makes her sexy: it's low, smoky, whiskey-cured, measured out to entice. It's irresistible catnip to a man."
Peter Nellhaus does well to remind us of Angie, Arnold Leven and Sam Whiskey at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee.
John McElwee at Greenbriar Picture Shows remembers some forgotten Angie Dickinson films and the Hollywood atmosphere in which her bid for stardom was launched.
Inisfree offers Angie en francais...
Richard Gibson features some nice screen grabs in considering Angie in Dressed to Kill.
Michael J. Hayde has a look at an early TV Guide appearance by our guest of honor.
Keep checking back for more to come as we celebrate Angie Dickinson Blog-a-Thon Day!
(Again, thanks to Aaron Graham, keeper of More Than Meets the Mogwai for his excessive generosity in procuring the screen grabs used to make this post a much more entertaining one than it would have been without them. Aaron is unfortunately unable to participate in today's tribute to Angie Dickinson, but even so, that he would take the time to supply this DVD-ROM-less soul with such delights for publication speaks volumes. My tab just keeps getting bigger and bigger, MGM.)