July 29, 2014 |
I recently read Barbara Payton’s autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed, written in the last days of her tragic life. Payton is held up as a classic Hollywood tragedy not because her experience was unique, but rather because she wrote a book about it.
Barbara Payton came to my attention because Cheese Theatre recently aired Only the Valiant, starring Gregory Peck. Payton had the female lead role in the picture, and although Peck is reputed to consider it his least favorite movie, it was probably the pinnacle of Payton’s career.
Payton came to Hollywood at age 17, and was understandably overwhelmed by it all. It was her meteoric rise to “stardom” that really threw her. If it had been more of a struggle, she may have developed enough “street smarts” to make her more savy to the pitfalls ahead. Instead, she was being invited to all the glitzy parties, and casting couches, before any perspective developed. The transition from pretty girl to “movie star” clad in furs and diamonds was just all too fast. She came to believe it wouldn’t end, that there was no pinnacle. As a result, she spent her money like a drunken sailor and never acquired any wisdom.
When you look at her rather limited filmography on IMDB, it’s plain to see. After just a few minor roles, she got the female lead opposite Jimmy Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, the year after she arrived in Tinseltown. It was too much, too fast. That was in 1950, and the very next year she worked opposite Gregory Peck in Only the Valiant. She remarks in her book that it was the only picture made where the leading man insisted that the leading woman be off the set when she was not required for a scene.
What she doesn’t mention, and subject to some speculation, here, was that she had already had a brief affair with Peck. Of course, everyone in Hollywood was sleeping with everyone else, but I conclude that she was making Peck uncomfortable on the set. That would certainly fit with her expressed disdain for the politics of Hollywood sex, as well as any sense of discretion. For example, she could not understand why she couldn’t go to Hollywood parties with her African-American lover (Woody Strode), or how it would most certainly cripple both their careers. Apparently Woody set her straight on that specific aspect.
Valiant was released in April of 1951, but by the following October, she was already reduced to Bride of the Gorilla, with Lon Chaney Jr. and Raymond Burr. Not the worst “horror” movie in any sense, but a BIG step down from Cagney and Peck.
What Payton seems to have failed to grasp was that, by sleeping with any and all Hollywood producers, actors, directors, et al, she was not marketing herself. She was cheapening herself. That may seem obvious to us all so many years later, but it was about all poor Barbara knew about the movie business.
Without grasping the implications, she had fallen from supporting leading men in “A” pictures to horror and other “B” pictures in less than one year. She did not seem to realize that she was already done. She appeared in four pictures in 1953, but they were all cheap horror or westerns. Both genres were considered beneath what a “movie star” should expect in Hollywood, and reality began to sink in, along with the associated depression, anxiety, and desperation. With that came booze and pills.
Her last credited role was in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Murder Is My Beat in 1955. This was only five years after Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye had propelled her to “stardom.” No one can blame Payton for not understanding what had happened. In this low budget noir, Payton’s acting reflects her position in life more than her screen character. She was a used up peroxide blonde, well past her expiration date. At this point, the booze and pills had taken their toll, so she fled to Mexico, where she spent two years living with a poor fisherman in a coastal village (according to her memoir). She might very well have found some lasting happiness there, had not a violent storm destroyed the place, killing most of the inhabitants.
In any case, her return to Hollywood held some promise. She was dried out, tanned and in better physical shape. But it was too late. Those who remembered her were not interested in casting her. Shortly, she fell into prostitution, taking as few as $25 a trick. This began “innocently” enough. Old friends, producers and directors, would take her to dinner, bed her, and leave her money because they knew she was hard up. After all, this was how she got parts in her heyday. But new parts never materialized. Even then, her writing shows little sense of reality, nor a respect for it.
Finally, she got an uncredited walk-on role in a Rat Pack film, “4 For Texas,” an opportunity that gave her one last glimmer of hope. Shortly afterward, she moved back in with her parents, wrote her autobiography, such as it is, and died at age 40 of liver and heart failure.
I can’t remember what actress said it, but so many aspiring Hollywood actors take terrible jobs for the sole reason of being available for auditions during the day. As a result, they wind up middle aged, with no career or way of making a living, when they could have had some kind of decent life outside the movie business. They get hooked on the idea of stardom and can’t shake loose of it. Barbara Payton may be the poster girl for Hollywood tragedy, but she is not alone by any means. And after reading her story, I have a new appreciation for David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, perhaps the most “realistic” portrayal of Hollywood ever.