A woman of parts
The face is familiar, but what’s her name?
She must be the casualty of some romantic legend, this auburn-haired lady in the wasp-waisted dress which billows over the chaise lounge where she lies, rigid and unmoving. With her eyes open but fixed on the ceiling, she looks like nothing so much as a corpse awaiting the ministrations of a Victorian undertaker. In the control room of the CBC Toronto Studio 7, where banks of TV monitors adore the lady, the tension is high enough to curl the paint on the walls.
Suddenly, in a single reflex motion, the corpse folds at the waist and snaps to a sitting position, crooning “Oh, Donna;
Ooohh, Donnnaaa; Woophhhh!” Hedda Gabler sings Fifties schmaltz. The camera crews convulse with laughter, and giggles of relief break up the control room in heavy, pneumatic bursts. A perfect smoke ring drifting absentmindedly over the head of director George Bloomfield divides in the stormy air like an amoeba. Those who watched the CBC production of Hedda Gabler when it was aired this January never saw Susan Clark as a nimble, singing corpse.
They watched the sublimely graceful Hedda, not the actress who pulls the strings so effectively that her own personality is submerged. But on set, when Susan Clark feels the strain getting in the way of the role, she reacts. She smashes the tension like a porcelain vessel if that will help the cast and crew get closer to Henrik Ibsen’s tragedy-bound heroine. In herróles as in her career as an actress—
with 18 feature and made-for-TV films behind her—Susan Clark doesn’t hesitate: She has the confidence to take things into her own hands.
For days, now, the cameras have followed her like Hedda’s jealous lovers. The players had just over three weeks to rehearse and video tape Ibsen’s play: now there’s just another day left. One day more and Susan Clark must stop playing hooky from Universal Pictures, give up her dalliance with poetic lovers like Hedda’s Eilert, who has “vine leaves in his hair,” for the more conventional embrace of Hollywood lovers bristling with tinsel.
Susan Clark is—in Hollywood parlance—very “hot” at the moment. It began with her starring role in Babe, the TV film
biography of the superb American athlete, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, which earned her an Emmy Award in 1975. It continued the next year, when she repeated her success with Amelia, a portrait of the pioneer aviatrix, Amelia Earhart, though she settled for an Emmy nomination instead another copy of the trophy. She recently finished a Walt Disney picture. The North Avenue Irregulars for release this fall, and she’s waiting to make yet another bio-pic, Colette, the story of the French author.
She’s even finding time to make a picture in Ontario this summer, based on Margaret Laurence’s highly lauded novel, The Diviners.
With The Diviners as with Hedda, Susan Clark has been making tentative steps back into her native country, which she left nearly two decades ago at the age of 17. She took off for England hard on the heels of an assembly at Lawrence Park Collegiate in Toronto, at which her principal had lauded the prowess of the swim team and the football jocks, but acknowledged her own proud achievement—a first in an Ontario-wide public speaking contest— only when the auditorium was half empty. “That’s when I realized I would have to leave Canada: the sponge wouldn’t hold
me.” The fact that she’s back, a graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and a 10-year veteran of Universal Studios, reflects changes in Canadian show business and attitudes to the arts. For the only things softened in Susan Clark are her classic, Celtic features. “I’d like to knock my principal’s teeth down his throat, even today,” she says matter-of-factly.
This is only the second time she’s worked in Canada, though she’s partly financed her own return: working for the CBC she earns only a quarter of what she’d make in Hollywood. Nevertheless, it’s an occasion far happier than the last, when
the death of her father cut short her very first appearance on the hallowed boards of London’s West End. She returned to be with her mother and sister, and all but fell into roles at the Shaw Festival as well as a series of six Festival productions at the CBC. It was on these same Studio 7 monitors that the then 23-yearold actress began her TV career, back in 1965. Many of the same people are still here, too, including George Bloomfield, who directed her virginal Héloise to Michael Kane’s saintly Abélard. “It’s been a luxury doing Hedda, working with these people again,” Clark avers, the day after Hedda has been dispatched, the crew thanked by means of a small “wrap” party on set, after the first good sleep she’s had in a month.
“I came back because I wanted to do some serious work: Ibsen is no slouch, after all. I knew before I came that
Hedda would be good. It might be terrific—there was always that possibility—but it wouldn’t be less than good. And, there’s no heat from producers here the way there is at Universal, where they think only of one thing: ‘Ya know how much it’s gonna cost ta reshoot?’ There’s no one here to blame. There are no ‘thems.’ ”
Of course, a solid phalanx of “thems” stretched as wide as a Panavision screen couldn’t have kept Susan Clark from Hollywood when the call came, as come it did, hard on the heels of Héloïse And Abélard. The striking young actress—all legs and cheekbones—had caught the eye of the media mavens from Universal. It would have taken a saint to resist their blandishments, and—as she makes abundantly
clear—Susan Clark has always felt more comfortable on the side of the sinners anyway. “Besides, it would have been wrong,” says actor Jack Creley, a fan of Susan’s ever since he played Canon Fulbert, uncle of Héloïse, in that fateful Festival production. “It was necessary for her to leave, no question. She could have stayed and been rediscovered seven times since, the way Pat Collins has. One year she would have been up; the next she would have died. That nonsense is not enough for Susan: her head is screwed on very tightly and grandly.” In short order, she was spirited to Universal’s lair: a cluster of film and TV studios sprawled at the base of a proverbially ugly
office building that houses MCA, the parent company, a building known in the valley it blights as “the Black Tower.” According to Hollywood legend, everyone wants to work there, if only because it’s the one place in the valley where the Tower doesn’t ruin the view.
If Clark felt any chill of apprehension when she came under the Tower the first time, she doesn’t say. Certainly, she had no way of knowing she’d spend 10 years in its shadow, growing to resent it more each year, the way any prisoner resents the symbols of his captivity. With the first seven-year contract—“I made my big mistake when I renegotiated and signed
another, later”—the glamour of her bondage kept Clark from feeling the tug of her chains. Initially, there was time for nothing but work. In two years, she received the massive exposure that only stardom—or a studio contract—can give. She played opposite all the biggest names, starting with Henry Fonda (Madigan); Clint Eastwood (Coogan ’s Bluff) ; and continuing with the likes of Robert Redford, James Garner, Gene Hackman, and the Burts, Reynolds and Lancaster.
When she wasn’t working, she was on the starlet’s treadmill of premieres, galas and publicity rounds, or at home, working harder to lose her English accent than she’d ever worked to acquire it. “I knew I hadn’t grown jaded, though, the day I was introduced to Cary Grant at the studio commissary. To my chagrin, I blushed and giggled, and generally carried on like a silly female,” she recalls, laughing gently as she flavors a glass of Perrier water with just a dash of white wine. Clark is relaxed and loquacious now, quite oblivious to the stir she’s created in the roof lounge of Toronto’s Park Plaza Hotel. The waiters have recognized her and they’re peeking around the door, trying without success to ogle her discreetly.
What they see is anything but a Hollywood costume parade—Susan Clark is the epitome of understatement in black slacks and a red print shirt. When you look carefully, though, you notice she wears the slacks more tightly than most people wear gloves, Saran Wrap style. That longsleeved shirt is a standard item, for, as a toddler in Sarnia, her birthplace, she fell over the steamer that was supposed to be easing her cold. The burns were third-degree and extensive, so much so they expected to lose Susan, her mother recalls. The scarring on her arm—with the plastic surgeons all away at war—was inevitable, since the wound grew over with red, brittle keloid skin. If anything the wound later intensified her determination to be an actress: she’d succeed despite it.
By 1969, with a string of features behind her, she was doing well enough to be flown back to Toronto and paraded before the public, Hollywood style—with limousines, publicists and sycophants hired for the occasion—as “Canada’s Star of the Year.” So loudly did Universal beat its drum that no one stopped to ask exactly what the award meant, since she hadn’t worked in the country since the Festival series, and never before that.
Clark could have answered any query without trouble. She was by now a veteran of the rough-and-tumble charm school that is the contract player’s life, a school which teaches that a smile that isn’t “klieg-light-bright” isn’t worth smiling; that her height—five-nine—is enough to threaten macho males and must be lied about; and most of all, that she absolutely must learn to keep her mouth shut. Not because she couldn’t speak intelligently, mind you, but because she could. It has
been a studio axiom, ever since the days of the Golden Moguls, that the public will line up for smallpox before they’ll buy an intelligent dame.
That’s one thing that hasn’t changed, even though there’s more left of Ozymandias now than at most studios. They don’t even build moguls the way they used to, back when Hollywood was a club filled with colorful furriers who knew their audiences better than their English—men who could (as Goldwyn might have said) “feel the pulse of the public by the seat of their pants.” Susan Clark was expecting flesh-peddlers to come crawling out from under walnut-veneered rocks in executive offices; but they simply didn’t materialize. The showmen have gone; the accountants, computer programmers and marketing men are fighting the rearguard action.
“I was naive enough to assume that, since they’d bought my services as Héloise, it was to pursue this kind of part. They hadn’t. They acquired me the way you’d buy land in Saskatchewan, or a farm in Quebec. They’re not in the business of making stars: they prefer to buy them. Universal hasn’t made one in ages—not Katharine Ross, even, nor Valerie Perrine.”
Instead of peddling flesh, Hollywood quantifies the risks; when the odds are right, they back them with dollars. Lew Wasserman, the head of MCA, told Clark that when the studio puts 100 young actors under contract, it only requires five of them to be successful and one to make himself a “star” for the whole investment to pay for itself.
Still, it might have worked out if the marketing boys had known what they were selling. “They did misread me and I guess partly it was my own fault,” she acknowledges. “They perceived me as this aristocratic, rich, English-Canadian classical actress. They were hard put to find roles for this kind of woman, so I ended up as the articulate decoration in more pictures than I care to remember. The doting wife, the dedicated scientist; no, I don’t want to go through the list.”
Clark expels an angry stream of cigar smoke in a long hiss and butts her hapless Habana savagely. “That was my stall: ‘the lady.’ It used to be sexy, once, to be a lady: you had the intelligence to be a whore in the bedroom and a lady in the parlor, which was what men wanted. But now...” Now, in the explicit no-positionsbarred Kama Sutra land that is entertainment in America, “the lady” is a certified nonparticipant, someone who, if she doesn’t actually speak with God, doubtless wears white gloves and takes afternoon tea with the Virgin Mary.
Susan Clark, as it happens, is a lady, but very decidedly one of her own making. She smokes cigars. She excludes visitors from rehearsals “because rehearsals are for experimenting, for burping and farting.” And though she gave up drinking and smoking(she doesn’t inhale the cigars), she
finds life no less jolly since “there’s sex, which is always fun, and work—and food!”
As a lady, she doesn’t need to worry about the “morals clause” in her studio contract, even though she’s had a houseguest in her modest, two-bedroom bungalow ever since she played Babe. On that set, she met Alex Karras, a football player turned actor who was better known with the Detroit Lions as The Mad Duck, or Mr. Mean, or The Animal. And what do they say in Hollywood about the Lady who lives with an Animal? She laughs: “That she must like it. I don’t really care: I think they’re entranced with the love story.”
But even if Universal couldn’t bend its collective mind around the idea that ladies can be sexy, a publishing-empire Svengali knew it was what his readers would love. “I’ve never met Hugh Hefner, but I understand that he keeps a list of the women he finds attractive.” Susan Clark made the list with Skin Game, the film she made with James Garner. Since skin was Hefner’s game all along. Susan was invited to play—to recreate some of the famous, long-stemmed beauties from Flo Ziegfeld’s chorus lines. Off came the white gloves and on went a touch of lace, heels and makeup. Where it wasn’t makeup, it was the Clark skin, acres of it.
One week and $25,000 later, Playboy had six shots of the very nude—“but never naked”—Susan Clark, of which five were published. The photos were a hit with fans like the jet pilots on the uss Forrestal, the aircraft carrier, who’d adopted Clark as their official squadron mascot. But the lady image persisted with her other fans, regardless—those teen-agers who run her fan club, and the civic politicians in Sarnia who organized a “Susan Clark Day” in her birthplace, last August.
Certainly, nothing changed at Universal. Susan Clark was choking on a rhinestone glut, her stage career long gone and before her bleak prospects as the also-ran starlet, clinging to her billings by a male star’s coattails. “At that point, the studio decided they’d made me into a TV personality, which wouldn’t be difficult since they
had 14 hours of prime time to fill each week.” But she rejected this “episodic garbage” flatly. She refused the roles she found unacceptable, and often as not fled Hollywood for the farm she’d bought near the ski slopes at Collingwood, Ontario. She was cut from the payroll, a worldwide injunction was obtained on her services, and the time she missed was added to the end of her contract.
Most people would have caved in. Susan Clark called on the strength of the pioneer women in her family, the strong, unyielding Celts who worked the land for generations so their great-granddaughters could be “ladies.” Her tenacity paid off when— out of left field—came the offers to play Babe and Amelia. The studio was only too glad to rent out its strong-minded actress.
It would now seem that Hedda was the key to Susan Clark’s freedom. Her career with Universal began in Studio 7 and—as happened several months after taping Hedda—it ended there as well. Susan Clark became one of the few actors ever to see their contract torn up, dissolved “in champagne, not tears,” she says. Long before Hedda Gabler was released to the airwaves, Susan Clark was released to fashion her career as she wants.
What she wants now is to extend that string of strong, indomitable women with the role of Morag, the quasi-autobiographical heroine of Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, which director Eric Till is turning into a $1.4-million film. “It’s 11:45,” she announces suddenly, looking at her watch. “Add three hours—gosh, 2:45 already—I have to meet Judy Steed ( The Diviners’ coproducer) at three. My watch is still on Hollywood time,” she explains wryly. “It’s one of those models that’s so accurate you can’t reset it.” So she rushes away, a free actress now, and a very determined one. But after all, it’s still a Canadian heart in her breast, one suspects, even if it is a different drummer who makes it beat.