Two fondly remembered women who held their own with gusto on screen with virile leading men on screen mark birthdays today. West Virginia-born Joanne Dru (1922-1996), would have been 95, made a vivid impression opposite the likes of John Wayne in Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Ben Johnson in Wagon Master. In between her brushes with the Duke and Ben came an important and multidimensional role as the society girl who falls under the charismatic sway of rapacious Southern politician Willie Stark in the Academy Award®-winning Best Picture All the King’s Men (1949), adapted from Robert Penn Warren’s novel and directed by Robert Rossen. As Anne Stanton, the beautiful belle who is first introduced as the fiancée of an idealistic reporter (played by then real-life husband John Ireland), she becomes morally compromised by the wily Governor Stark (Oscar® winner Broderick Crawford) and later becomes an unsuspecting pawn in the ruination of her father (Raymond Greenleaf), a Stark political opponent. As a stand-in for the naïve upper crust that considers itself superior to a pugilistic populist but nonetheless gets fatally sucked in, Dru’s unflashy yet spot-on work tended to get overshadowed by that of the more flamboyant award winners Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge but is nonetheless integral to the film’s impact. Dru’s subsequent movie roles wouldn’t fulfill the promise of her early heavy-hitters, but series television (particularly Guestward Ho!) would, across the following three decades.
TV is also the sweet spot of four-time Emmy® nominee Suzanne Pleshette (1937-2008), who’d turn 80 today. The much-loved future co-star of The Bob Newhart Show and Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean got a solid foothold in late ’50s guest appearances in all manner of series. Then, a succession of big-screen roles in Rome Adventure (romantic drama), 40 Pounds of Trouble (romantic comedy) and The Birds (Hitchcock, its own genre) revealed more acting colors in the lady’s plumage. In the riveting aviation mystery thriller Fate Is the Hunter (1964, directed by Ralph Nelson), she plays Martha Webster, a flight attendant who bears the extremely lucky but also soul-crushing burden of being the single survivor of a horrible jetliner crash that killed all other crew and passengers on board. When it appears the blame for the disaster may be placed on the fast-living, veteran ace pilot Rod Taylor, the dead man’s old buddy, airline executive Glenn Ford, digs in to find out what truly went wrong before his memory gets unjustly ruined. In that endeavor, the shattered and haunted Pleshette proves to be key, and she expertly depicts Martha’s mix of fragility and professionalism with harrowing precision when it becomes plain that going airborne again in a test flight to recreate the conditions that blighted her ill-fated journey is the only route to a truthful destination.
But the sexy, throaty-voiced Pleshette has always been most treasured as a mistress of verbal and physical comedy. One need only take a gander at Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971, directed by Burt Kennedy) as a primer in what the lady can do with the role of Patience “The Sidewinder” Barton, a backwater Molly Brown-esque tomboy, whose wanderlust to escape the roisterous mining town of Purgatory, Colorado, and become a society lady sees a solution to her dilemma in the arrival of travelling gambler/con artist Latigo Smith (the peerless James Garner). The two had previously worked together on the streets of contemporary Manhattan five years earlier, he as an amnesiac trying to reclaim his identity and she as a free-spirited actress who provides aid and comfort, in director Delbert Mann’s screen version of Evan Hunter’s novel Mister Buddwing (1966), and the screen-couple chemistry that started there was sparked again in this Wild West reunion populated to the gills with marvelous character actors whose energy helped disguise the fact that this nonsequel was by and large an enjoyable replay of the high spirits and easygoing fun of the earlier Kennedy concoction Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). Garner and Pleshette would work together again felicitously under circumstances blending humor and heartache in several episodes of the TV series 8 Simple Rules that followed the death of series star John Ritter.
With the superb dramatic and comedic skills of birthday honorees Dru and Pleshette as crucial components, the steel and wit of the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays of All the King’s Men, Fate Is the Hunter and the Support Your Local Sheriff/Support Your Local Gunfighter Double Feature burn brightly and magically at 175-candle power.