Paddy Chayefsky evokes a cynical Tennessee Williams in his screenplay for The Goddess, a Hollywood cautionary tale directed by veteran John Cromwell. Episodic in progression – the film is broken into three pulpy chapters – The Goddess serves as a spotlight for a daring Kim Stanley performance, playing within the middle-brow arena of melodrama even as it stages dark comedy and acute commentary.
In The Goddess, Stanley is Emily Ann Faulkner, a broken woman from rural hickdom who has been abandoned by her irresponsible mother. (The child is portrayed by Patty Duke; Betty Lou Holland is persuasive as the selfish biological mother.) Emily is thus raised by relatives, primarily a Seventh Day Adventist aunt. Stardom, however, is her higher calling.
Emily mimics the flirty sensuality of a young Lana Turner, even taking a job at a soda fountain-cum-pharmacy. She then takes the “sweater girl” image further than anything seen on-screen, gaining a reputation in town as “promiscuous.” Chayefsky, in fact, slyly suggests that young women who imitate starlets possess an inherent knowledge of sex beyond anything overtly showcased on film or in fan magazines.
A chance encounter with a drunken serviceman (Steven Hill) in the early years of World War II leads to marriage and a child, but more importantly for Emily, Hollywood. When the union fails, the child is discarded as she forges her way into movies. Rechristened Rita Shawn, her persistence gives way to a second volatile marriage, this time to boxer Dutch Seymour (Lloyd Bridges). Boozy, lonely stardom follows.
As Emily, Stanley delivers a bravura performance that recalls fellow Actors Studio player Geraldine Page in her big-screen stabs at Tennessee Williams. The two actresses’ non-traditional movie-star looks and common theatre background make the comparison pronounced, but Stanley mercifully buries the self-awareness frequently found in Page’s screen performances, while more successfully adapting stage-bound mannerisms to celluloid.
Although her age at time of production (she was 33) works against Stanley as the teenage Emily Ann, the actress manages to underscore chatterbox adolescence with a display of misplaced confidence that conceals stark psychological wounds. Though few would mistake Stanley for a blonde bombshell, the actress convincingly realizes this component of her character as something entirely superficial. Thus, Kim Stanley deconstructs the movie star even as she disassembles her own theatrical affectations. Her performance holds The Goddess together, filling in noticeable narrative gaps.
The serialized structure of the film recalls fan fiction found in the magazines Emily Ann likely enjoyed in youth. Yet, this device also results in glaring interruptions in the storyline. Perhaps Paddy Chayefsky trusted the audience would fill in the holes; it is easy enough to discern, for instance, that Emily’s marriage to Dutch ends as her star ascends without on-screen exposition. Additionally, the abrupt nature of this approach creates ample discord, heightening both internal and external drama; it also reinforces the dark comedic rhythms of the tale.
On the other hand, the three chapters never coalesce successfully, while elements of the first and second acts seem unwarranted as executed. Director John Cromwell manages to maintain a certain narrative rhythm – The Goddess, in fact, fondly updates aspects of his early 1930s women’s pictures – but the story ultimately lacks equilibrium.
In The Goddess, Chayefsky feeds upon the idea of Hollywood myth-making, as his screenplay alludes to actresses from Ava Gardner to Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe. (The author denied specific inspirations, but the film eerily anticipates Monroe’s demise.) He also draws solid parallels between stardom and religion, most startlingly when Emily’s mother reappears in the third chapter as a religious fanatic unable to save her mentally spent and emotionally crippled daughter.
Fortunately, Kim Stanley’s performance boldly epitomizes these ideas, for at the film’s Revelation neither moving images nor evangelical salvation is able to provide her character with the necessary escape from emotional trauma.
The Goddess (movie 1958) cast & crew
Director: John Cromwell.
Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky.
Cast: Kim Stanley. Lloyd Bridges. Steven Hill. Betty Lou Holland. Joan Copeland. Gerald Hiken. Patty Duke.
© Doug Johnson