Saturday, November 28, 2015

Book Review: Pamela Tiffin: Hollywood to Rome, 1961-1974 (McFarland)

 
Tom Lisanti has written before about many different 1960s starlets.  He has referred to these women in his book titles as fantasy femmes, drive-in dream girls, and glamour girls.  But cult icon Pamela Tiffin is the first young actress so dreamy, glamorous and fantastic to merit the author’s loving and undivided attention for an entire book.


Lisanti expresses his disappointment that Tiffin never achieved the superstar status of contemporaries like Ann-Margret and Raquel Welch.  The author makes a persuasive case that Tiffin didn't acquire the roles that she deserved and didn't acquire the recognition that she deserved.  It is the unfortunate way of Hollywood.  An actor's career in the film industry can be scuttled by mistimings, misgivings, misperceptions, and misfires.

After the actress' strong start in Summer and Smoke and One, Two, Three (both 1961), Tiffin's bosses at Twentieth Century Fox designated her to play light and predictable roles in escapist formula pictures.  There were the usual teenage beach party frolics and the unending three-girls-looking-for-romance romps.  Lisanti contends that Tiffin, an ingénue who was both pretty and funny, confused producers, whose tendency at the time was to squeeze actors into safe niches.  They simply couldn't find a niche in which Tiffin would fit.


At the time, competition was fierce for a young actress in Hollywood.  This is a running theme in the book.  In the last ten years, I am not sure that Scarlett Johansson has had to fight off as many rival actresses for roles.  I remember once seeing E. J. Peaker on an episode of That Girl and thinking that the show would have been a lot better if she was the star rather than Marlo Thomas.  I then began to think of many other actresses who would have been funnier, more believable and more sympathetic as the series’ star than Thomas.  Of course, Thomas vaulted over many obstacles with the help of her superstar daddy Danny Thomas.  It's just how it is.


In the end, sheer talent is never enough.  You need drive and ambition.  You need strategy and marketing.  You need a resilient spirit and a scheming mind.  You need, as Thomas, a powerful supporter.  And, of course, you always need luck.   

Tiffin did not always serve her best interests.  She lacked the ruthless competitiveness of other actresses and she could at times be impulsive in making important decisions.  She wouldn't do television because she was uncomfortable with the fast pace of television production.  She took herself out of consideration for the Bonnie Parker role in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) because she got scared off hearing about Warren Beatty's womanizer ways.  She moved out of the United States because she was desperate to put distance between herself and her ex-husband. 

Much attention has been paid to Tiffin's physical beauty, but Lisanti explains convincingly that there was much more to Tiffin than her looks.  The book motivated me to review two of Tiffin's films, One, Two, Three (1961) and The Pleasure Seekers (1964), and it became obvious watching these films that Tiffin was indeed a special talent.


An actor's looks, in the end, do not matter much.  The other day, I was watching a Columbia Pictures comedy called Who Was That Lady? (1960).  The film exceeds any reasonable quota for youthful feminine pulchritude.  To start, the leading lady of the film was the lovely Janet Leigh.  But the film further treats male viewers with a supporting cast that includes Joi Lansing, Barbara Nichols and Barbara Hines.  If long legs and curvy hips made an actress, then this film would have the dramatic heft of Little Women.  But it doesn't.  It doesn't even have the dramatic heft of Robot Monster

Tiffin was a genuinely talented actress.  It is a point that Lisanti makes well, which is what makes this a fascinating and worthwhile book.  The book is especially engrossing when it details Tiffin’s experiences dealing with randy leading men, nastily competitive female co-stars and hopelessly inept directors.  It is a period drama of a period that has received great attention in recent years.  I kept expecting attractive bi-coastal actress/model Tiffin to have a run-in with attractive bi-coastal adman Don Draper.


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