…Well, in the movies, anyway, where she was known as Ginger Rogers.
There were credits after the two from the mid-fifties that I re-watched this week (1954′s hit-and-miss Black Widow and 1955′s riveting Tight Spot) but she seems to have stayed on safe ground afterwards. In any case, her days as a star who could put Van Heflin or Edward G. Robinson in second place on a lobby card were numbered.
Hollywood didn’t start throwing forty-something leading ladies over the side yesterday.
I don’t necessarily buy the notion that she was “playing against type” in this last major phase. It’s a common assessment of these two roles (which are more different from each other than either is from the hard-boiled dames she had made the first of many strong impressions with in the early thirties)and that judgment isn’t entirely wrong, just a tad simplistic.
By the time the mid-fifties rolled around, Ginger had been a sufficient number of “types”–most famously the proto-type of the wisecracking girl next door (related to–but finally very distinct from–the Screwball Dame, the Streetwalker, the Good Wife, the Girl Friday, the Victim of Cruel Fate, or the Modern Housewife, all of which she had a hand in shaping as well**) which has, in fact, turned out to be Golden Age Hollywood’s most durable and flexible archetype (if the latest exemplar, Jennifer Aniston, turns out to be the last, it will be our loss)–that finding a new one by simply playing “against” the old ones would have been next to impossible.
They were brave choices all the same.
The script lets her down pretty badly at the end of Black Widow (surprising since it was by the great Nunnally Johnson, though the fact that he was also directing may be suggestive of why directors get so much credit when movies work), and, to tell the truth, she didn’t get as much out of it as she might have. Stuck with the job of selling the bleeding obvious as a Big Surprise (always a bad thing in a plot that depends almost entirely upon its twists), she tried to make up for it by over-emoting, the mistake she had, up to that moment, been better at avoiding than all but a handful of her most astringent contemporaries.
The movie is promising, then, but finally a bit of a disappointment.
Tight Spot, released the following year, more than made up for it.
The movie’s a good one–not perfect by any means, but it grew on a second viewing, not a usual occurrence with me and noir.
And, while I noticed, and appreciated, other things, it was mostly her performance that filled the new spaces.
It occurred to me that she might have seen Sherry Conley–in prison on a bad rap like everybody else (except in her case it really might have been), a little past her prime, a little broad in the beam, and with a few snappy lines at her disposal but no more than a few and nowhere near enough to meet every occasion–as a chance to put dramatic flesh on her own archetypal Busby Berkeley-style streetwalker Anytime Annie’s comic bones.
It’s true there’s no line as good as 42nd Street’s “Who could forget her? She only said ‘no’ one time and then she didn’t understand the question,” in Tight Spot’s solid script. But there is a lot of sharp self-analysis and a complex character arc that Rogers handles beautifully at every turn.
Sherry Conley is a woman who sweats, never more than when she’s working overtime at pretending to be on top of things. She’s constantly backing and filling, looking for angles, forever assuming that any step which doesn’t send her through a trap-door only increases the likelihood that the next one will, while not forgetting the spot she’s standing on isn’t exactly safe either.
That’s not an uncommon position for a female character in noir-land.
What’s unusual about Rogers in Tight Spot–trying to make up her mind about whether to testify against a gangster who has a habit of murdering witnesses (Lorne Greene in a very sharp turn) all while falling in love with a conflicted cop (Brian Keith, good as always) in a “safe” hotel room–is that, like a lot of actual human beings and almost no Streetwalkers who show up in Movie-land, she can’t seem to get out of her own way.
She’s used to being goosed and not at all used to being liked.
Not even by us, the people in the cheap seats. Not that we’ve had much practice, this being the character who usually gets killed off in the second act, now suddenly asked to carry the thing through to the final credits.
One way to judge whether a performing artist–especially an iconic one–has taken a genuine risk is whether the result divides the artist’s devotees. I know that, to at least some extent, this result does.
I can see where it might. The risk Ginger took in this last moment of her real stardom, was the one Hollywood actresses tend to avoid like the Plague at any age.
Namely, she was willing to grate. Even in a movie that–good as it is–turns slick here and there, she never does.
Or, put another way, she was willing to play a character who tends to grate and to play her in three dimensions.
The variety of opinions as to how worthwhile this really was tend to wander all over the map and to break down more along the lines of responses to the character being worthy of any attention at all than to the actress’ choice of how to play her.
I’d say that’s the best proof that Ms. McMath–who has a pretty good claim on being the toughest nut in the history of Hollywoodland (a land and a history where I can’t conceive of any other sort of nut surviving at all)–succeeded very nicely.
(**NOTE:There’s also a rumor that she could dance a little.)