A Baby Doll - Grace & BeautyTuesday, January 19, 2010
When Elia Kazan’s film Baby Doll (story and screenplay by Tennessee Williams) opened in 1956 at the Cine Roble in Mexico City I was much too young (14) to see it. In 1959 I went with my sometimes pious grandmother to see The Miracle with Carol Baker and a young Roger Moore playing a soldier from Wellington’s army. The film was sort about the Virgin’s apparition in Lourdes and my grandmother told me about secrets that had never been divulged which were probably all about the end of times. My grandmother stressed it as “el final del mundo”, so I should have perhaps capitalized that to the End of Times. In 1959 I was enamoured with Grace Kelly (she was on the pedestal) and I lusted over Brigitte Bardot (she was definitely off a pedestal as I wanted to look down and stare at her cleavage). Carroll Baker simply did not register in my mind and I really never did notice her in Giant.
In the late 50s my only other knowledge of Carroll Baker were the spoofs of her, sucking her thumb (the most notorious memory that people have of Baker’s performance in Baby Doll) that I saw and read about in Mad Magazine. In the 70s and 80s there were serious essays in Playboy that were often illustrated with that picture of Baker in her crib.
I am sure that my friend John Lekich (a walking film encyclopedia) could clue me in on Baker’s subsequent career. I notice that she did play Jean Harlow in a film. I never saw that film nor can I remember any other that might have had Baker in the cast.
All that changed yesterday when I saw an extremely clean and sharp print of Kazan’s Baby Doll on the Turner Classics Channel. At first I could not figure out who the incredible and sensuous blonde being seduced by Eli Wallach was (looking very young, very Sicilian and very nasty). The scene was near, and on one of those tandem wood swings that usually occupy decadent American porches of the South. As Wallach talked and filled the young woman’s ear with sweet platitudes I noticed the woman begin to breathe ever so more quickly until she almost swooned. This was one of the most extraordinary performances of a woman acting out desire that I have ever seen. It was at that moment that I figured out that I was watching a Williams play, and that the blonde was Carroll Baker. In how many films can one watch Wallach spar with Karl Malden? They looked like friends (probably the case off screen) doing what they knew how to do best, act. The music including a black man sitting on the floor on a porch, stomping his feet, playing a harmonica and singing was superb. I was mesmerized by the film and Baker became a revelation. I immediately consulted my only remaining collection of hard copy movie reviews, Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies (remember I am a self-confessed snob) and I found out that she was delirious in her praise for this film.
A week before I had found an 8x10 glossy of Hilary. It is the first picture you see here. I finally located the negative today and found I had taken it on Mayne Island in 1986. It was in that year that with some money in the bank Rosemary and I commissioned artist Jim McKenzie to paint our two daughters. He photographed them on the ferry on the way to his home on Mayne Island. I took pictures of the proceedings on the ferry and on the island, too.
On Saturday night while having dinner with Rosemary, Hilary, Rebecca and Lauren, Hilary removed her glasses. In spite of being tired after a long day as Wellness Manager and Consultant at Stong’s (while wearing the sexually ambiguous black uniform of her place of work) I was struck by her beauty. As soon as I returned from taking them home I removed the 8x10 from our family photo bin shoebox and stared at it. I had to find the negative. I did.
My mother was no raving beauty but she had legs, a body, a smile and grace in spades. I was often told that all I had inherited from her was her crooked smile. I must reveal here that, yes, I also inherited her legs and her beautiful feet. As for being handsome the only person who has ever directly told me I am handsome is the unrelentingly fastidious freelance editor Grip, Maja Grip. What this means is that any beauty in our family must come from my wife Rosemary. Everybody tells Hilary she looks like me and that her smile is as crooked as mine. This would mean that Rebecca’s grace and beauty came from her father or from my wife via her mother but not inheriting from her mother.
When Hilary was born, my mother looked at her and diplomatically said, “What beautiful hands she has.”
It was in 2009 that Hilary’s daughter quite rudely overstepped the boundaries of being a daughter (an almost forgivable sin coming from someone that is not yet in her teen years but acts like one who is well into them) and in many words told off her mother (in my presence) that she had no grace and did not know how to dress.
As I look at the many pictures I have taken of Hilary but never really printed my eyes have opened to her beauty and grace. While watching Carroll Baker’s performance in Baby Doll I was reminded of my own daughter’s sensuality which obviously I had suppressed since I was and am her father. But I can see that seriousness. I can see her natural ability to not smile unless prodded and I can see in her all the beauty and grace that her daughter Rebecca has inherited from her. That so many say that Hilary’s other daughter Lauren looks exactly like her mother, bodes well. This means that Hilary's two Stewart daughters will have grace and beauty in a long suit of hearts.
And if I were Rebecca I would find ways of making amends. After all the image that she sees on the mirror could well be her mother’s.
Happy to be sad
Alexandra & Hilary in La Conner