Carroll Baker brings ‘Baby Doll’ to Winston-Salem
The RiverRun International Film Festival’s ongoing “RiverRun Retro” program will present a special screening of the 1956 classic Baby Doll on Saturday, Aug. 17 at the Hanesbrands Theatre in Winston-Salem, with the Oscar-nominated star Carroll Baker in attendance.
After the screening, Baker will engage in discussion with noted author and film historian Foster Hirsch, discussing the film, its impact, and her illustrious career. A reception will follow, and Baker will autograph copies of her new novel, “Who Killed Big Al?,” which will be available for purchase.
Baby Doll marked only the third feature for Baker, a member of the famed Actors Studio in New York, in which she played the title role, a tempestuous child bride torn between her alcoholic, middle-aged husband Archie (Karl Malden), and Archie’s lascivious business rival, Silva Vaccaro (Eli Wallach, in his screen debut).
Tennessee Williams adapted Baby Doll from his play “27 Wagons Full of Cotton,” and Elia Kazan directed it. The two had previously collaborated in the 1951 classic A Streetcar Named Desire, for which Kazan won the Oscar as Best Director and Malden the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.
Baby Doll is quintessential Tennessee Williams: Vivid characters, heated passions, and his trademark dark humor.
Before Baby Doll, Baker enjoyed a prominent role in the epic Texas drama Giant, based on Edna Ferber’s bestseller, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean (in his final film). Giant was an enormous success and earned 10 Oscar nominations, with George Stevens winning for Best Director.
“Warner Brothers wanted to push me to see if I was going to be a big star,” she recalled. “So on the set of Giant, the publicity people kept asking reporters ‘Don’t you want to meet Carroll Baker?’ ‘This is Carroll Baker, who’s co-starring in the film.’ Instead, they all wanted to meet Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and James Dean, and even George Stevens, not that I blame them! So they left me alone.”
Baker filmed Baby Doll immediately after. “In Mississippi, where we filmed, there was no press at all,” she said. “Giant was considered a huge film, and Baby Doll kind of a small film, even though Kazan was directing and Tennessee Williams wrote the script.”
As fate would have it, the two films opened almost simultaneously. By this time, controversy was already brewing for Baby Doll. “I remember getting a phone call one morning, and the first thing they said was, ‘Cardinal Spellman has condemned your film from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. How do you feel about that?’”
Baker laughed at the memory. “The first thing I said was, ‘Which film?’”
Not surprisingly, the controversy generated headlines everywhere, but it didn’t help the box-office.
“We lost 90% of the theaters,” Baker said. “Kazan was so hurt, Tennessee Williams was so hurt, and the actors were all so hurt. We didn’t expect anything like that. We were getting great coverage before it came out, from Time and Life and other magazines, but when the film came out some of the same magazines were printing pictures from the film, darkening them and making it look more sordid than it was.”
The film’s critical acclaim cushioned the impact of the controversy. In addition to Baker’s nod as Best Actress; Baby Doll earned Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Mildred Dunnock), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography (black-and-white).
“It’s my favorite film. I love it. I love the ending, especially. We were waiting for Tennessee to come through with the ending,” she laughed. “That last line: ‘We’ve got nothing to do but wait for tomorrow, and see if we’re remembered … or forgotten.’ Well, that’s just perfect!”
Although best known for Baby Doll, Baker has several classics to her credit, including The Big Country (1958), How the West Was Won (1962), The Carpetbaggers (1964), Cheyenne Autumn (also ‘64), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Star 80 (1983), and Ironweed (1987), in which she portrayed Jack Nicholson’s long-suffering ex-wife. She gave Arnold Schwarzenegger a run for his money in Kindergarten Cop (1990), and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Although she formally retired from the screen in 2003, she established a second career as a writer. Her autobiography “Baby Doll: An Autobiography” was published in 1983, a subsequent memoir “To Africa With Love” in 1986, and the novel “A Roman Tale” in 1987.
Tackling her first whodunit with “Who Killed Big Al?,” Baker didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
“Agatha Christie is an idol of mine, and when I wanted to research various poisons, I simply turned to her, because she had done such tremendous research. So thank you, Agatha,” she laughed. “I really enjoyed writing ‘Who Killed Big Al?,’ it’s a lot of fun. It’s got a lot of humor in it.”
Baker’s selection as a Master of Cinema recipient was not difficult, said RiverRun executive director Rob Davis. “In a screen career encompassing both film and television over half a century, Carroll Baker proved herself to be an exemplary actress across a variety of genres,” he continued. “She demonstrated a mastery of her craft working with such legendary directors as George Stevens, William Wyler, Eliza Kazan, Edward Dmytryk, and John Ford. Additionally, she has had a distinguished theater career including several productions on Broadway and on the London stage, and now we are deeply honored to present a RiverRun Master of Cinema award to Carroll Baker, who certainly exemplifies the award’s title.”
The 22nd annual RiverRun International Film Festival will take place March 26-April 5, 2020.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.
The RiverRun Retro presentation of Baby Doll will be screened 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17, at the Hanesbrands Theatre, 209 N. Spruce St., Winston-Salem. Tickets are $12. For advance tickets, visit the website. For more information about this event and other RiverRun events, call (336) 724-1502 or visit the official website.