Saturday, August 02, 2014

Susan Oliver Documentary Now Available

This documentary by George Pappy is a most welcome profile of the late and unjustly forgotten actress Susan Oliver, who died in 1990 at the age of 58, but it's also - in many ways - the story of a profession with its own growing pains and related sacrifical victims. Though named in tribute to Oliver's best-remembered role, as the torrid dancer Vina on the pilot STAR TREK episode "The Cage" (which became the later two-part episode "The Menagerie"), the film doesn't dwell unduly on that one highlight; it correctly attends to Oliver's remarkably unique and diverse career as possibly the only "Guest Star" of the Golden Age of Television to have earned that distinction without first (or ever) becoming a top-billed star in films or television. She achieved that standing by bouncing from one outstanding one-shot performance to another. She did have a dozen or so film roles to her credit (the biggest being the second female lead, after Elizabeth Taylor, in BUTTERFIELD 8), and she held onto her blonde, blue-eyed good looks so long she was able to play a college student while in her late thirties. However, she did not play "the game"; Oliver rejected both a Warner Bros. feature contract and several offers of her own series, so determined was she to remain available to whatever best opportunities on stage or screen might come along - alienating moguls and agents alike, regardless of the outstanding performances she continued to give or how well-liked she was by her directors and fellow actors. Indeed, one of her last career-sabotaging decisions was to decline a friend's campaign to secure a star for her on the Hollywood Walk of Fame - because she didn't "believe" in stars, only in good work.

Interviewing Oliver's surviving relatives, fellow actors, friends and lovers, as well as some critics, Pappy delineates the special person she was: spontaneous, adventurous, courageous, creative, but above all, willful and determined to live by her own rules - though, ironically, she would only briefly outlive her even more dominant, controlling mother, the astrologist Ruth Oliver, who raised her as a single mother from the age of three. The film packs an overwhelming legacy of work (represented by numerous film and TV clips) into its first 30 minutes, with the balance exploring her personal life and secondary lives as an aviator and feminist, and she comes across vividly in all her splendor and faults. Though the film is complimentary about her few efforts as a director, the clips don't really support the commentators' enthusiasm, and while the film industry is often blamed for not being more flexible in accommodating her, it's apparent that many of her problems originated (as one friend bashfully admits) with "Susan just being Susan." That said, whatever her personal angels and demons may have been, they were also the raw materials she brought into play as an exceptional and memorable actress, whose talent played a large part - more than 130 guest appearances on different series! - in making the 1960s the first great decade of television drama.

If you already remember Susan Oliver's work fondly, I don't have to sell this; you already want it. But I'll go the extra mile to say that, if you're a working actor, you can't really say you know your profession unless you are familiar with this woman and her story. Available on DVD-R directly from this link for $19.99.

(c) 2014 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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