Dana Wynter died Thursday, May 5, of congestive heart failure at Ojai Valley Community Hospital’s Continuing Care Center, located in the small hilly community about 60 miles north of Los Angeles. She would have turned 80 on June 8.
Though never a top film star, Dana Wynter holds a place of honor in film history: she is the heroine who falls asleep in the wrong place, at the wrong time, near the wrong pods in Don Siegel’s 1956 sci-fi-horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Other notable films include Henry Koster’s D-Day the Sixth of June, with Robert Taylor and Richard Todd; John Huston’s The List of Adrian Messenger, with George C. Scott; and George Seaton’s all-star blockbuster Airport (1970).
The daughter of a surgeon, Wynter (born Dagmar Winter, in Berlin) grew up in England and later Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) and South Africa.
After abandoning pre-med studies, Wynter began her film career – under her real name – in small parts in British productions of the early ’50s.
She was brought to the United States in 1953, later landing a contract with 20th Century Fox. Her leading-lady days at Fox began with the Philip Dunne-directed drama The View from Pompey’s Head (1955), opposite Richard Egan and Cameron Mitchell.
Just prior to that, Wynter starred opposite Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) for Allied Artists, the renamed and upgraded version of Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures.
The story of small Californian town invaded by soul-stealing alien pods, the low-budget ($350,000; $2.9 million today) Invasion of the Body Snatchers became both a cult classic and a highly influential sci-fier. Its most recent official remake was the poorly received 2007 flop The Invasion, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, and starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. But touches – at times more than just touches – from the story are to be found elsewhere, e.g., Stephenie Meyer’s The Host.
In a 1999 interview for Starlog magazine, Wynter told sci-fi/horror film historian Tom Weaver:
“It was just supposed to be a plain, thrilling kind of picture. That was what Allied Artists thought they were making. By the way, we realized – Walter and Kevin and people who can think about things – that we were making an anti-“ism” picture. Anti-“ism” – fascism, Communism, all that kind of thing. We took it for granted that’s what we were making, but it wasn’t spoken about openly on the set or anything like that. They were delicate times, and I think that if Allied Artists had had the slightest idea that there was anything deeper to this film, that would have quickly been stopped!”
Now, considering the number of anti-communist movies Hollywood churned out in the ’50s, it’d have been kind of strange to get rid of the underlying message found in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Unless, of course, that underlying message was less about the dangers of communism than about the dangers of political apathy and the anti-Red hysteria of the period. After all, Daniel Mainwaring, who would be a victim of the anti-communist blacklist, wrote the screenplay adaptation.
Anyhow, whether or not it was intentional – original author Jack Finney always claimed his tale was about Pods, not Reds – the multilayered storyline of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the reasons the sci-fier remains as intriguing today as it was more than half a century ago.
Dana Wynter, Kevin McCarthy in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Dana Wynter herself didn’t care for her performance in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In fact, her son, Mark Bautzer, told the Los Angeles Times that Wynter didn’t think the role would come to define her and “she didn’t consider acting a worthy profession for an adult.”
She could have fooled me. Wynter is flawless as the woman on the run in Body Snatchers, and she’s just as effective – and just as beautiful – in Lewis Gilbert’s war drama Sink the Bismarck! (1960), opposite Kenneth More. As Burt Lancaster’s bitchy wife, she manages to steal all of her scenes in George Seaton’s blockbuster Airport (1970).
Wynter’s role is mostly decorative in John Huston’s mystery-comedy The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), but hers is a refreshing presence, nevertheless.
Wynter’s own favorite movie was Henry Koster’s romantic war melodrama D-Day the Sixth of June (1956), which paired her up with friends Robert Taylor and Richard Todd.
A couple of other notable roles were those in Richard Brooks’ Something of Value (1957), a tale of political intrigue and racism in Kenya, co-starring Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier (interesting in that the white guy is the hero and the black guy is the hate-filled fanatic), and Henry Koster’s Fräulein (1958), as a German woman who hides an American soldier (Mel Ferrer) near the end of World War II.
Following The List of Adrian Messenger, Wynter acted in only five more features, the last of which was Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Le Sauvage (1975), in which she supported Yves Montand and Catherine Deneuve.
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s she kept herself busy on television, mostly guest-starring in dozens of series and specials. Long before Helen Mirren, Wynter incarnated Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Levin’s 1982 TV movie The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana, starring Christopher Baines and Catherine Oxenberg, and featuring old-timers Olivia de Havilland, Ray Milland, and Stewart Granger.
In later years, Wynter divided her time between the Upper Ojai area and County Wicklow, Ireland, where her ashes will be buried according to the Ojai Valley News. One of her off-screen passions, it was reported, was the defense of animal rights.
Now, Dana Wynter’s final impression of Invasion of the Body Snatchers?
“In your first picture, you’re so terrified you’re going to do the wrong thing that you just play everything straight. So it’s nothing I’m proud of. Now, I was happy to be in it, especially because of Kevin and because of Don, and it was a fun thing to do. But I’d just as soon forget it.”
Source for Dana Wynter’s quotes about Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Tom Weaver’s I was a monster movie maker: conversations with 22 SF and horror filmmakers.
Dana Wynter image via Doctor Macro.