A Special Starting Place

A Special Starting Place

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Feb 23rd 2018

In a 1971 San Antonio Light interview months before her new film, Dalton Trumbo’s shattering Johnny Got His Gun, would premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, actress Diane Varsi (1938-1992), who would have turned 80 today, talked about her chosen craft which she got to practice only sporadically across 20 years: “The very thing that led me to want to act was very mysterious, even to me. I thought there was a whole communal feeling in film. That the idea of film was to be a service of humanity, a means of communication. But the spirit was power.” Her screen career got off to a powerful start when she was cast as defiant, small-town teenager Allison MacKenzie in the talent-packed all-star cast of Peyton Place (1957), the eagerly anticipated screen adaptation of Grace Metalious’ scandalous bestseller. Allison was in some ways the most intriguing character in that she observes the hypocritical goings-on in the outwardly idealistic New England town and functions effectively and compassionately within its borders, yet after she learns the secret truth behind her parentage from her protective, pillar-of-the-community mother (Lana Turner) and experiences the trauma of another woman’s suicide, she turns her back on her past life and pursues a writing career in Manhattan, later returning to both cover the climactic trial of one-time best friend Selena Cross (Hope Lange) and possibly mending fences at home. It was a tall order of a role for the new Twentieth Century Fox contract player, and in casting her, producer Jerry Wald reportedly considered the fresh-faced Varsi a “confused, pimply little bunny. Exactly right.” Inside Oscar® authors Mason Wiley and Damien Bona noted: “After sneak-preview audiences indicated that Varsi was their favorite among Peyton Place’s group of newcomers [which also included Lee Philips, Russ Tamblyn and David Nelson], the studio gave the 20-year-old the big buildup. She was a cover girl on Modern Screen and a frequent item in the columns whenever she went on a studio-arranged date.” Her forceful work earned her a Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe Award and one of the film’s nine Academy Award® nominations (including Best Picture and Mark Robson as Best Director) – five in the acting categories – and she would make three more Fox films in quick succession, 1958’s Ten North Frederick and From Hell to Texas and, most notably 1959’s Compulsion. However, the previously noted descriptive “studio-arranged” would prove smothering to the free-spirited Varsi, who broke from her personally unfulfilling contract and went out on her own, never again to match the impact of her cinematic initiation before her untimely death at age 54. That makes Peyton Place on a marvelously extras-appointed Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray a poignantly powerful tribute to today’s birthday honoree.