Tuesday Weld, the All-American Valium Girl 

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American Girl: Tuesday Weld
September 21-25 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Tuesday Weld is obviously—or more often casually and insidiously—too smart to have been a bigger star. She is good in every movie, but not all of her movies are good. They’re all interesting, though. While the well-selected FSLC series is a terrific collection of titles as idiosyncratic and enjoyable as her performances, the list of films she didn’t make tells you as much about her stubborn independent-mindedness as the films she did. She famously turned down Lolita, Bonnie and Clyde, True Grit and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Some of her best performances were directed by third-tier auteurs Noel Black, George Axelrod and Frank Perry—she seemed to have preferred unclassifiable oddities directed by almost-unknowns, or something in which she’d be able to insert a strange neurotic tone into surprising corners and rivets of conventional counterculture material, rather than be modeled to fit a great director's vision, or star in a hit that would have overshadowed the beautiful hysterical details of her performance. Tuesday Weld sparred with the material in her films and won every spat with acrid charm; she’s the best thing in everything she was in.

She had hard, dark eyes, and golden hair and skin. The proportions of her milk-fed, wholesome body and sculpted face were pretty much perfect (all except those giant white All-American front teeth that gave her the gullible girl-next-door look well into her twenties). Yet, Stanley Cavell wrote that the reason she missed the fate of indistinctiveness which met most of the actresses of the 1960s was because the nervous awkwardness of her voice and body was out of register with her looks. Or, as similarly described in the best scene in the turgid and woman-hating Looking for Mr. Goodbar, when the falling-apart Weld answers her sister’s adoring litany of her “perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect legs” with, “Ma, Pa, Brigitte, they all think I pee perfume. But YOU know I’m a little flaky, and you never blame me for it.” Weld herself wasn’t flaky (she supported her family as a model from the age of five) but had a shakiness she brought to the self-destructive, pill-popping, manipulative characters she often played, which seemed like the outer layer of a simmering ecstatic rage. When asked how she is—as the left-wing intellectual bookstore worker she plays in the smug and drugged downbeat Boomer heroin heist film Who’ll Stop the Rain—she answers, “I’m feeling a little de-RANGED,” as she gulps down another valium. She consciously, brittlely, awkwardly voiced the neurotic way we make small talk, or assert who we are and how we are. There’s an active emptiness to her performance style which was a good fit for the many parodies of 20th-century malaise that she appeared in.

One of the greatest of these is somewhere between a parody and a celebration of ennui, Joan Didion’s own adaptation of her novel Play it as it Lays. This story of a faded actress and Hollywood wife is, quite plainly, the best adaption of a novel ever made. Didion and her husband and co-writer John Gregory Dunne worked with the director Frank Perry to put together shots and a tone that exactly mirror the fragmented tone of the novel. Any faults with the film, then, lie in its source material. Like the novel, the film is portentous, mopey and beautiful, and utterly ridiculous. If you have a taste for that sort of thing, for people who rent a room to stare at the wall and who wrestle with sensuous, languorous boredom, then it’s manna. As Weld/Didion say, “I could tell you I saw a cock in that inkblot, but WHY.” Anthony Perkins, though, does bring a doomed and weird tenderness to the film that's absent, though not missed, in the book.

Also starring Perkins is the most crucial film in the series, Pretty Poison, from 1968. Almost a counterpoint to the very 60s B&W suburban pop cult favorite Lord Love a Duck, also about a manipulative deviant in love with teenage Weld, Pretty Poison doesn't feel dated like that other film but seems to exist as a playful, hard candy-colored dystopia in parallel with Red Desert. It’s a strange film, sexy and slightly psychedelic, that feels as if it was dropped into the past from the future. The titular poison is colored chemicals, the plot is comic book noir, yet the performances are natural. Perkins gives a career-topping performance as the painfully smart lanky weirdo with a dark past. He’s clearly crazy but it almost seems possible that majorette Weld, with her blue convertible and very lovable curves, could rescue him from a fate of permanent creepiness, until it's revealed that her attractive vacantness might swallow him whole. The manipulated is the manipulator; the role-switch is exhilarating, and the heartbreak is sharp.

In Lord Love a Duck, there is no romance. Middle-aged Roddy McDowell plays a high school senior at Consolidated High, California. He is an asexual know-it-all who teaches fellow student (and object of his obsession) Weld how to use her sexually for inane ends. Tuesday Weld does her best, which is phenomenal, playing a character who is not a woman but a representative of American vulgarity and empty ambition. While this cult favorite was once a personal favorite, it doesn’t hold up to repeated viewings. It is pockmarked by strained pauses and parodies that haven’t aged well; what keeps it moving is the terrific Neil Hefti saunter of a theme and Weld's shockingly good performance. (Also, Ruth Gordon as a yogurt-eating, health-crazed, batty and bitchy matriarch is worth seeing.)

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Lord Love a Duck has been called undefinable, baffling and audacious. But the pleasure of the film comes from the confusion and shock of witnessing it for the first time. It's an interesting puzzle: what is this film, what makes it such a rogue cultural satire? What makes it seem so from nowhere, so ahead of its time? The answer is that it's behind its time, that it's actually totally square. Lord Love a Duck, which makes fun of Teenage Beach movies and cashmere sweater wearing girls, was made in 1966. 1966! The early 60s Beach Blanket movies were already parodying themselves by 1965. Tashlin, another frequent point of comparison to Lord Love a Duck, had made the spending-class pop-satire Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (based on a play by Axelrod) in 1957, almost ten years before, and while the Tashlin still sizzles, the Axelrod feels very vintage, trapped in amber. Love a Duck is goofy in a dorky and bitter but not brave way—Jim Carrey over Jerry Lewis. And the neurotic sexuality is a little much. While it's certainly fun seeing Tuesday Weld growl like a cat while rolling around in a pile of colored cashmere sweaters (colors like “Pink Put On” not seen but articulated) while turning on her own dad, she exhibits just as much unbridled libido in a scene in Leo McCarey’s Rally Round the Flag Boys (1958) in which she’s writhing in a diner booth while being serenaded by a soldier. (Tuesday Weld wore sailor stripes, popped pills, and convulsed sexily better than any American actress in history.)

While, again and of course, Weld is great in the McCarey, it is otherwise an utterly charming misfire about Long Island commuter life, and seems as if it should have been directed by Tashlin. Luckily, there’s an actual Tashlin in the series, Bachelor Flat, from 1962, which is an awesome, underseen masterpiece. This may be the one exception in which the film, or the filmmaker, is able to offer as many unexpected, gorgeous thrills in the techniques and in complicated compositions as Weld does in any single scene she’s in, in any film.

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