In Nicolas Ray’s 1956 masterpiece, ‘Bigger Than Life’, James Mason plays a family man who, under the influence of pills, mentally tortures his wife and son. Notice the monstrous shadow behind him in the above photo and see how it perfectly symbolizes how bonkers he’s become. That flick was way ahead of its time. In it, the tension is claustrophobic and the technicolor makes it surreal. You don’t need to come from a dysfunctional family to feel the full impact of mental illness and witness the devastation on the poor souls that come across Mason’s character.
‘Bigger Than Life’ was made by a director who enjoyed being under the influence himself. Please join me as I now open my case file on the first of three mythical Hollywood figures who loved to take any substance that they could put their hands on, paying an awfully high price both physically and mentally.
BARBARA PAYTON (1927-1967)
On May 8, 1967, this 39-year-old former starlet was found on the bathroom floor - dead of heart and liver failure. She found fame, if not fortune, as a femme fatale type in the 1949 film noir, ‘Trapped’, and, to put it bluntly, attempted to screw her way to the top to make a name for herself in Tinseltown. A nymphomaniac on the loose, she slept with all her co-stars, whether or not they were married. Payton couldn’t help but burn bridges along the way, numbing herself with booze and drugs. Hollywood showed no mercy and turned its back on poor Barbara. She became destitute and had no choice but to turn tricks to survive. Barbara Payton’s rise and fall is a fascinating and compelling tragedy.
I had no knowledge of her whatsoever until my husband showed me a story that appeared in ‘Filmfax’ magazine in 1999. My curiosity was piqued to say the least. How did this beautiful woman who showed such promise sink so low? It’s one thing to be temporarily successful on the Silver Screen and then fade away, but to end up as a prostitute on the Sunset Strip? It boggled my mind.
Later that year, we spent a week in San Francisco, a town well-known for its great second-hand bookstores. I had learned of Barbara Payton’s rare ghost-written 1963 autobiography, ‘I Am Not Ashamed’ and confidently figured that I’d be able to get my hands on it in that city. I inquired about it in the first bookshop we hit. Well, lo and behold, one of its employees opened a door behind the counter and presto! There was the book in question, framed, plus a gorgeous cut-out display of the ‘Bad Blonde’ herself, originally used for advertising in the lobby of a movie theater! Needless to say, this Payton memorabilia wasn’t for sale, but one of the store’s other employees did sell me a spare copy of the book from his own collection. Mission accomplished!
With enough info on hand, I couldn’t wait to write and illustrate a story on her, custom-made for the zine we self-published at the time, Sweet Smell of Sick Sex. The drawings above are a few that I did at the time. Anyway, our move from Montreal to Toronto with the new job challenges that entailed put a stop to those plans. No further issue of Sweet Smell appeared and it wasn’t until several years later that I finally came up with my take on Barbara’s tragic tale, which will soon appear in Sinemania! Here’s a little sleazer, I mean, teaser…
Seeing as how my book basically concerns itself with legendary movie directors and not obscure fallen starlets, I wanted my detour exploring the wild life of Barbara Payton to be fairly quick.. I just wanted to convey her decline into the depths of Hollywood hell in a nutshell. Really, her story should be made into a movie because if ever an actor personified the term ‘self-destruction’, it was her! Maybe Lindsay Lohan could star in it?
For the complete story on this real lady of the night, I absolutely recommend ‘Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story’ by John O’Dowd. It’s a must-read! That fantastic writer is so in love with my favorite bad blonde that he also created a wonderful online shrine to her youthful beauty and glory. Click on it without regret!
Other absolutely essential reads on the sketchy underbelly of Hollywood which also discuss Payton are ‘Laid Bare’ and ‘L.A. Despair’ by John Gilmore. Trying to make it as an actor in the ‘50’s and ‘60s, Gilmore met her and many other Los Angeles lowlifes. His books are filled with one mind blowing recollection after another, including a story in ‘Laid Bare’ about the night that he was hanging out in a bar with a young struggling Dennis Hopper. When Hopper spotted Barbara soliciting, he managed to hustle her under a booth for a ‘sexcapade’. He was under the influence, too, and didn’t give a crap that she was no longer in her prime. Dennis just thought it’d be a blast to put his manhood into where bigger stars had previously entered.
Speaking of Hopper, brace yourself for my post on this hard-living, substance-abusing Hollywood screw-up who, like Barbara Payton, is also a perfect candidate for inclusion in Sinemania!, but unlike Barbara, managed to ultimately redeem himself. Coming soon to this blog!