Lee Remick: An Appreciation
“I make movies for grownups.” — Lee Remick
Lee Remick was a woman of deep sensuality, talent, elegance, and a classic beauty. She made her film debut in Elia Kazan’s underrated “A Face in the Crowd,” portraying Betty Lou Fleckum, a sexy, seductive seventeen-year high school cheerleader, selected by “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) as the winner of a baton-twirling contest. Rhodes is so turned on by Betty Lou’s sensuality that they run off together and marry. The following year Lee appeared in Martin Ritt’s “The Long Hot Summer” with Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Tony Franciosa, followed by “These Thousand Hills” and Otto Preminger’s excellent “Anatomy of a Murder” where she played the seductive trampy wife of Ben Gazarra who allegedly was raped by the man Gazarra murdered. Remick’s use of her natural eroticism to manipulate others is so straightforward she never allows the character to seem like a stereotypical Hollywood tramp but a fully dimensional human being.
The 1960s got started with her second Kazan film, “Wild River” another underrated gem in which she co-starred with Montgomery Clift and gave what Richard Schickel says “maybe her finest performance.” In 1961, she played Temple Drake in Tony Richardson’s misfire “Sanctuary” based on two William Faulkner novels (Sanctuary and Requiem for a Nun). Things improved in 1962 with the released of two Blake Edwards directed films, the fine thriller “Experiment in Terror” and in what is one of her most memorable role, that of the alcoholic wife in “Days of Wine and Roses” for which she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination. It is a harrowing performance that will stay with you long after the film is over. At this point in her career, Lee should have been swimming right into the top-tier of female stars of the sixties however, a series of uneven choices in her following films would derail that trajectory. Carol Reed’s “The Running Man,” a decent film, found only a small audience. This was followed by her first comedy, “The Wheeler Dealers” with James Garner, a pleasant enough movie but nothing to write home about. “Baby, The Rain Must Fall” with Steve McQueen, “The Hallelujah Trail” with Burt Lancaster were moderately successful though neither were groundbreaking.
In the mid-1960s, Lee took some time off between films to appear in a couple of Broadway productions. First, the musical “Anyone Can Whistle,” which closed after one week. This was followed by “Wait Until Dark,” a play written by Frederick Knott, the author “Dial M for Murder.” Directed by Arthur Penn, the play was a hit running for 11 months. Besides Lee, the cast included Robert Duvall in the role of Harry Roat Jr., the leader of the drug dealers. Lee received wonderful reviews and a Tony nomination for her role as Susie Hendrix, the blind heroine. According to Alexander Walker in his biography of Audrey Hepburn, he states that Warner Brothers purchased the rights to the play before it even opened on Broadway and they were negotiating with Hepburn as early as mid-1965. The play did not open until February 1966. Upon agreeing to do the role, Hepburn wanted it announced early to avoid accusations, which occurred when she did “My Fair Lady,” that she stole the role from the original Broadway actress.
Lee returned to films in 1968, with the release of the thriller, “No Way to Treat a Lady,” based on an early William Goldman novel. That same year, Remick played Frank Sinatra’s oversexed wife in the uneven version of the best-selling novel “The Detective.” Other movies followed; among them are “Hard Contract” with James Coburn, “Sometimes a Great Notion” reuniting her with Paul Newman, “The Omen” with Gregory Peck, “Loot,” “A Severed Head,” “Hennessey,” and “Tribute.” There also was a production of The American Film Theater’s version of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.” However, Lee’s career turned more and more toward TV movies and mini-series. She played the title role in “Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill.” She also appeared in “QBVII,” “The Blue Knight” with William Holden, “A Girl Named Spooner,” “Ike,” “Ike: The War Years,” “Hustling,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” and “Haywire” among others.
Remick was known to prepare passionately for her roles. The Massachusetts born actress lived with a local family in the Arkansas town where they were filming “A Face in the Crowd” and learned from their daughter the art of baton twirling for her role as the seductive cheerleader. For her stage role in “Wait Until Dark,” Lee spent a month blindfolded every morning at New York’s Lighthouse for the Blind. To prepare for her role as Kristen in “Days of Wine and Roses,” Lee attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Lee Remick never achieved the stardom of say an Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, or Shirley MacLaine but her talent was just as great. She sometimes was second choice for a role (Lana Turner was originally offered her role in “Anatomy of a Murder”) yet she persevered and gave us some outstanding performances that will never be forgotten.
Despite her elegance, early in her career, 20th Century Fox publicity was trying to build Lee up as “America’s answer to Brigitte Bardot.” According to an interview with Joe Hyams of the New York Tribune, Lee was not happy with the comparison saying, “anyone who’d want to build me up as a sex siren would have to be crazy.” She added, “I’m an actress and a woman and you can’t classify me with your interview number 4, nor can you dispose of me by comparing me to Brigitte Bardot or Grace Kelly.” At the end of the interview, she smiled “you can compare me with Greta Garbo, I have big feet too.”
While never compared to Marilyn Monroe, at least that I am aware of, Remick and Marilyn’s careers intertwined three times. In 1956, Lee did a stage version of “The Seven-Year Itch” portraying the sexy neighbor that Marilyn would play in the Billy Wilder movie. In 1976, she played Cherie in a West End, London production of William Inge’s “Bus Stop.” On film, a more direct connection came when 20th Century Fox announced after firing Marilyn that Lee would replace her in the ill-fated “Something’s Got to Give.” Dean Martin who was to co-star stated that no offense to Remick, but he would not do the film without Marilyn. 20th Century Fox dropped the production. Five years later the story was resurrected and made with James Garner and Doris Day in the leads with the title changed to “Move Over, Darling.” Lee Remick's premature death at 55 years old in 1991 was shocking and severed the short career of one of the classiest actresses of our time.