Before winning Academy Awards for the screenplays to such Thrilling Days of Yesteryear favorites as The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976—a movie that becomes more and more eerily prescient every time I watch it), Paddy Chayefsky was one of the small screen’s most respected scribes, with contributions to such live television presentations as “Marty” (later adapted for the movies and winning Chayefsky his first Oscar) and “The Bachelor Party” (also becoming a big screen candidate in 1957). The Goddess (1958) would be Paddy’s first original screenplay (and it also garnered an Academy Award nom), and I revisited this little gem last week after DVR’ing it from The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™.
Newly-widowed Laureen Faulkner (Betty Lou Holland) has arrived in a small Maryland town with her four-year-old daughter Emily Ann to pick up the pieces by moving in with her brother (Gerald Hiken) and his wife (Joan Copeland). Because Laureen is still in her 20s and anxious to have a little fun in life, she’s quite upset about being saddled with Emily Ann…and at one point even asks her in-laws to take the little girl in while she pursues other romantic interests (a man who wants to marry her doesn’t like children). She expresses this wish within earshot of Emily Ann (who was eavesdropping while seated at the top of the stairs), an incident that surely scars the little tyke later when she’s turned eight (and played by a young Patty Duke) … and incapable of getting any love or attention from her indifferent, preoccupied mother.
As Emily Ann (Kim Stanley) approaches adolescence, she becomes in many ways “her mother’s child”: she’s a capricious flibbertigibbet who dreams of respectability and acceptance by becoming a motion picture star. She makes moves in that direction by marrying John Tower (Steven Hill), the son of a silent film legend; Tower is an irresponsible drunk who at least has enough decency to warn Emily that if they were to marry it would be an endless series of disappointments and heartbreak. He’s right on the button on that score; things sour quickly in their marriage and Emily finds herself in a familiar situation when she tries to fob off her infant daughter on her mother.
Five years later, Emily is now a Hollywood starlet renamed “Rita Shawn.” She capitalizes on the ardor of ex-pugilist Dutch Seymour (Lloyd Bridges) by marrying him to give her career a boost…but that union turns out to be every bit as poisonous as her first marriage to Tower. It does, however, achieve the desired effect of enhancing her status in the industry…particularly after a lecherous studio head (Donald McKee) offers her a lucrative contract. Five years later, and Rita Shawn is one of the most bankable attractions in the industry…but she’s also a most unhappy one, with a never-ending battle with the bottle that led to a nervous breakdown. Idolized by moviegoers, the woman formerly known as Emily Ann Faulkner is still stymied by her need for acceptance and to be loved.
The inspiration for the main character for The Goddess is readily apparent: it’s a thinly-disguised portrayal of Marilyn Monroe…though Paddy Chayefsky was always careful to disavow any obvious comparisons (particularly after Marilyn’s then-husband, playwright Arthur Miller, discussed the possibility of a lawsuit). Other actresses that purportedly inspired the character of Emily Ann/Rita include Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, and Joan Crawford (though outside of Emily Ann’s assiduous ambition I don’t quite see this one); Kim Stanley, who portrays the Monroe clone, always thought her character more accurately mirrored Jayne Mansfield. The irony is that Stanley’s personal life would later mimic that of the Emily Ann character; despite showcases in such films as Séance on a Wet Afternoon (for which she received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress) and TV shows like Ben Casey (winning an Emmy) and The Eleventh Hour, Stanley suffered a mental breakdown that scaled back her movie and TV appearances—she later became an acting teacher in her home state of New Mexico. (Beginning in the 1970s, she returned to the small screen and then the big one, getting another Academy Award nomination for playing the mother of troubled actress Frances Farmer in 1982’s Frances and winning an Emmy in 1985 for her turn as “Big Mama” in the American Playhouse production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” .)
It’s been close to thirty years since revisiting The Goddess (I remember renting the VHS back when I worked for Ballbuster Blockbuster Video in the late 80s) and I was very surprised that it’s improved with age. It’s not a perfect movie—it’s dramatically uneven (there were clashes between Chayefsky and veteran director John Cromwell) and many of the minor characters aren’t as fully developed as I would like—but I admire the film for resisting the attempt to put a big Hollywood happy ending on what transpires; by the time the credits roll no one is really satisfied with their lives and are simply resigned to taking as it comes. Stanley is fantastic as a person who simply cannot satisfy her craving to be loved, and the scene where she tries and fails to reconcile with mother Holland (who’s morphed into a religious fanatic as she’s gotten older—a nice touch) is particularly heartbreaking. The movie is also a nice showcase for Sea Hunt star Bridges, who handles his role as a frustrated ex-athlete with far more aplomb than I was expecting.
There are lots of future TV faces in The Goddess (notably future Oscar winner and Brooklyn Heights resident Patty Duke, in her first credited film role) including Steven Hill (billed as Steve), Joyce van Patten, Joanne Linville, Werner Klemperer, and David “You son of a gun!” White. It’s TDOY fave Elizabeth Wilson, however, who commits cinematic larceny by practically walking away with the movie as Stanley’s protective assistant—a woman who’s resigned herself to the role as the actress’ surrogate mother (and caregiver), telling Hill’s character: “We got her to a psychiatrist for four months…then he said to me…she will never really respond to treatment…she will always be the same…she gets simple therapy now…I’ll take her back to California…and she’ll go on making movies…because that’s all she knows to do…and whatever happens after that, happens…but I kind of love her…and I’ll take good care of her…” If you missed this one on TCM, it is available on MOD DVD from Sony…I will warn you, though—the feature is bleak and uncompromising…but life’s like that.