In Praise of Susan Oliver: The Green Girl (2014)
By Tony Williams.
“She was so much more than the Green woman in Star Trek” (George Pappy DVD audio-commentary).
“What I knew I didn’t want was to just get married and become a housewife and lose my identity.” (Oliver: 81)
Produced and directed by George Pappy, who also co-wrote the script with editor Amy Glickman Brown, The Green Girl was financed independently and received no industry recognition or support from an institution that never treated the subject of this documentary with the respect she deserved. However, steadily growing in respect and sales since its appearance, this documentary reveals not only the value of non-Hollywood independent funding but also informative contributions by many familiar industry people who are finally allowed to deliver their respect for a tragic, yet resilient, colleague. It also sets the record straight about someone who combined many talents. Susan Oliver was a prolific and astounding actress whose directing career was unfairly nipped in the bud; an accomplished aviation pilot as well, she was an extraordinarily independent woman.
Susan Oliver is only known today by most people for her guest appearance in the original 1964 Star Trek pilot “The Cage” that later became the two part episode “Menagerie” (1966). Most syndicated episodes end credits with the still shot of her performance as green girl Vina. But she was much more than that, as this documentary shows. Inaccurately remembered for this role, good as it was, Susan Oliver today suffers from that same stereotyping process that remembers James Cagney for saying “You dirty rat” and Johnny Weissmuller for “Me Tarzan, You Jane” although they never spoke those lines in any film. Michael Caine’s repeating “Not many people know that” in the appalling remake of Get Carter (2000) was probably uttered in response to similar tedious nightclub comedian jokes he hoped to lay to rest in the same way James Cagney corrected the error in his AFI Life Achievement speech. Susan Oliver was an accomplished actress and could deliver many quality performances, as the many clips from her film and television work that fill a huge proportion of this 96 minute film show. The Green Girl portrays someone who could not only light up the big and small screens with her charismatic presence but also deliver strong performances.
George Pappy first discovered her as the “Green Girl.” But before that role, Susan Oliver had appeared as guest star in many television shows from the late 50s onwards and well into the 80s. I always admired her other roles in the prolific world of series TV at the time, most of which managed to gain syndication in England with its two broadcast stations at the time – BBC and ITV. One episode I remember with mixed feelings cast her as the spunky girl needing discipline in Wagon Train (“The Maggie Hamilton Story.” 1960). Robert Horton puts her over his knee, raises her dress, then spanks to make her no longer a feminist threat but an Eisenhower-era dutiful daughter. It is a scene as repugnant as John Wayne’s spanking of feisty wife Maureen 0’Hara in Andrew MacLaglen’s hideous McLintock! (1963). Pappy and Glickman Brown also include a clip of Susan being lassoed by a male, but the spanking scene is even more appalling and a symbolic illustration not only of how women were regarded at the time but the future humiliations she would later receive as director of a Trapper John M.D. episode in the early 80s.
A Susan Oliver guest role in any television episode during the 50s and 60s was an event worth seeing since she lit up the screen not only by an attractive presence motivated by her professional and subtle use of eye movement but also her glamorous and intelligent persona – a combination not always appreciated in past and present industries. The documentary contains many clips from her numerous television guest roles and Pappy is accurate when he states that she seemed to have appeared in virtually all the TV series from the 50s to the 70s. Clips could appear tedious but are not due to judicious selection. Susan occasionally appeared in series in an ongoing non-guest star role, such as Ann Howard in Peyton Place (1964-1969) and the soap opera Days of Our Lives (in 1975-1976) but she never remained long due to boredom playing the same role or desire to pursue other avenues such as aviation or directing. One answer to her preference for frequent guest spots may have been their similarity to repertory theatre since she was interested in that area from the beginning, when she took over for Mary Ure in the New York run of Look Back in Anger (1958) as well as other plays, one of which won her the admiration of Helen Hayes. She also studied voice training under Maria Callas’s teacher for one singing role. In 1950 she had studied acting at Sanford Meisner’s and Martha Graham’s New York Neighborhood Playhouse in 1950 alongside lifelong friend David Hedison, along with Steve McQueen, Joanne Woodward, and Sydney Pollack. Although no professional dancer, she trained for her role as Green Girl slave dancer in Vina in the Star Trek pilot with many of her seductive motions ending up on the cutting room floor for censorship reasons. Like anything new, she gave herself to it 100%. Towards the end of her life she planned to return to the East Coast and theatrical work so this explains her desire for frequent guest roles in which she played different characters rather than being trapped in a series playing the same character and then being forgotten once the series ended. Lee Meriwether confirms this when she describes Susan as “strong willed” and wanting “to do theatre.” This naturally hurt her movie career prospects in Hollywood.
Not playing the Hollywood game at the beginning of her career, Susan earned the wrath of Jack Warner and several agents, possibly angered at not gaining their expected monetary interests from her if she had remained in the same series year after year. She outlived her more obedient studio peers such as Carol Lynley, Diane McBain, and Yvette Mimieux by continuing to act well into her 40s. Stubbornness cost her the possibility for consideration in Doctor Zhivago (1965) when she was under MGM contract, where other starlets such as Jane Fonda and Yvette Mimieux were competing. An imaginary version of John O. Thompson’s 1978 article “Screen Acting and the Commutation Test,” which is presented in the documentary, offers fertile possibilities in terms of the potential Susan had to play Lara under David Lean’s direction but this was sadly not to be. It appears that she was not interested in a studio contract no matter how much this could have contributed to her future fame and fortune. Thus she was out of consideration for roles in The Graduate (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). However, despite making some unsatisfactory films, she could light up the screen in certain instances, as the clip included by Pappy from Butterfield 8 (1960) shows her putting down Elizabeth Taylor, and playing the wife of George Hamilton’s Hank Williams in the already old-fashioned type of Hollywood biopic Your Cheating Heart (1964). (One of her earliest film performances I still remember is as the cabaret femme fatale who hooks Sal Mineo on to drugs in The Gene Krupa Story, 1959). Her seductive but glacially steel presence is one of its highlights. In one of her few early films, The Caretakers (1963), Joan Crawford made sure that she would never share the frame either with Susan or Diane McBain. George Pappy also speculates that one reason for the failure of “The Cage” pilot was due to the fact that guest star Susan Oliver outshone those actors who were supposed to be series regulars. She did this frequently in her early television career at a time when the “guest star” was not supposed to be much better than the often bland regulars.
However, even her presence could not save certain episodes in the more conveyer belt formulaic world of 80s TV as clips from Murder She Wrote reveal. As fellow actor David Hedison notes, actors may have optimism concerning how their abilities could save a bad show but in the end they are defeated due to bad scripts. It is not accidental that many of Susan Oliver’s major television achievements occurred in more prestige 1960s TV series such as Herbert Brodkin’s The Defenders (1961) and The Nurses (1962-1965), Johnny Staccato (1959-1960), Naked City (1958-1963), Route 66 (1960-1964, in which she guested in three episodes, one of which playing a schizophrenic), The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), The Untouchables (1959-1963), T.H.E. CAT (1966-1967) and Quinn Martin’s The Fugitive (1963-1967) and others. She also appeared alongside Robert Duvall in the only two-part episode of The Fugitive (besides the finale) “Never Wave Goodbye.” Guest spots on The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968) and Burke’s Law (1963-1966) revealed her comedic talents. During the 50s and 60s Pappy notes that “She was in almost everything” and once she broke away from her non-exclusive contract (a rarity in those days, in her case allowing her to appear in Broadway plays), she “became the most prolific guest star of her era because she was a very good actress.” Once the industrial machine quenched any type of creative input that existed in the early days when Susan was able to change her persona frequently it ended the possibility for her stimulating performances to continue to the extent they formerly did. Interviews with colleagues such as Hedison, Meriwether, Gary Conway, Peter Mark Richman, Kathleen Nolan, Celeste Yarnell, Roy Thinnes, Monte Markham, and many others contain sympathetic insights into Susan’s talent and the difficulties she faced fitting into the system. Gary Conway adds an interesting insight as to why Susan became bored by acting and wanted to become a director in stating that good actors need more control over their performances and unless they are allowed to direct (a privilege mostly given to males rather than females) they trend to become frustrated unless they find other avenues for their creative talents. The presence of Conway’s own paintings on the wall behind him during his interview visually exemplifies this.
Susan Oliver was obviously bored and sought other things such as gaining aviation experience and embarking on a transatlantic flight from America to the Soviet Union. As one commentator points out, “Flying made her happy.” Let down by her lover, aviator Mira Slovak, as she recounts in her fascinating book Odyssey: A Daring Transatlantic Journey (1983) and other previously supportive, but suddenly obstructive, male friends (see 10, 14) she managed to make it all the way to Denmark but was refused access for the two-hour final part of the journey to Russia. Despite the definite success of a venture only partially obstructed by a suspicious Soviet Union, the flight was deemed a “failure” in the press and on her return back she faced humiliation by the Press and abandonment by a once supportive boyfriend. Aviation was a life she loved where she could be free and independent from any gender and institutional pressures. Unfortunately, she abandoned it when she sold her plane to option a book she intended to direct on screen, a possibility that never materialized.
She never married and this led to allegations that she was gay. But her documented heterosexual involvements, which never became permanent, were not due to such an easy explanation but rather to the fact that her independent persona could never find the right man to match her at that particular time. Her autobiography supplies many clues as to why she preferred to be free and single since, unlike her traumatized character in The Disorderly Orderly (1964), Susan Oliver acutely noticed differences between the reality of patriarchal social commitments and the ideological romanticism that led to personal disasters as her comments on the divorce of her own parents reveal.
To me, therefore, divorce seemed simply a matter of your two parents moving apart to their own different spheres of life. I was dismayed to discover later, when I’d grown more, that in the usual divorce there was often so much rancor, hate, and name-calling. Then again, not all marriages around looked like much fun either. (73)
When speaking about her first lover, Susan also recognizes the difference of a commitment very much in the line of Lauren Bacall’s song from Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) that takes pleasure in any fulfilling relationship even if “maybe it’s just for a day” rather than a devastating penal servitude of lifelong marital entrapment.
He taught me the joy of a happy, sexual, intellectual, man-woman communicating relationship. Yet it never really entered my head to want to get married, for vaguely I sensed, perhaps, that I’d be moving on. Happily, I’d never gotten the standard pressure from my parents that I had to marry to please them. (87-88)
Pappy also reveals that Susan wanted to have a child in a very inhospitable early 70s but her proposed donor backed out at the last moment, another in the long line of males who let her down in one way or another. She was also very eclectic in her friendships especially with African-Americans at a time when such involvements were taboo even on the platonic level. In the documentary many of these colleagues respectfully remember her. Possible problems with a dominating mother may also have contributed and The Green Girl contains many clips from Susan’s career to suggest that certain roles had relevance to her own life. Several of these involve tense relationships with a mother. In his audio-commentary Pappy notes that in Susan Oliver’s prolific career it is sometimes possible to come across certain reoccurring themes in roles that are applicable to her real life. In addition to the mother problem, one clip from Susan’s galley of disturbed females is also relevant. It is her scene with the psychiatrist in Frank Tashlin’s The Disorderly Orderly that may also provide a much more relevant and serious answer to that Monty Python comedy sketch “Funny (s)he never married.”
In a film that presents a challenge to any critic attempting to separate Jerry Lewis from Frank Tashlin, Susan performs an extended monologue developing Dean Martin’s ideological attack on patriarchy and the family when speaking to Pat Crowley about the economic traps of marriage and a “little monster” in Tashlin’s Hollywood or Bust (1956). Filmed in one extended long take with Susan moving towards a fish tank that lights her up in a manner akin to Douglas Sirk’s color expressionistic Brechian techniques in his 50s Hollywood melodramas, there can be no doubt that the actress herself shares many of the feelings of her disturbed character:
You fall in love. Then the girl learns what love is. Get married. It’s a one way ticket to unhappily ever after. It’s a one-way ticket to nothing. Battling parents! Me! It was going to be different. A perfect pair! It looks pretty. Then it falls apart. I’m a victim of `fall out’. He was playing around with other girls before I combed the rice out of my hair. I hate him. I hate men!
No evidence exists that Susan Oliver ever hated men – unless they deserved it. She had many positive friendships with males including Rosy Grier and others who remember her fondly. But this moment in a Jerry Lewis film operates as a feminist version of a Hollywood BrechtIan gest significantly disrupting the rest of the narrative before the film’s eventual optimistic ending that does not include Susan. At the end she waves farewell to the cured Jerome Littlefield while expressing an ambivalent look on her face that combines a mixture of happiness for an insecure male who has now achieved emotional stability and regret for her own future situation. This is great screen acting equivalent to that ambivalent facial gesture on the face of Orson Welles’s Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1966) following his rejection by his former son in whom he was once pleased.
Susan never found the right man to match her demanding standards and she preferred to do things in order to achieve personal satisfaction like aviation and directing. She was very aware of sexism in the workplace as clips from a documentary she hosted attest. It is a shame that she never worked with Howard Hawks since he would have admired her professionalism and perhaps cast her in better roles in his own films that would reflect her own personality. Significantly, in terms of the difficulties she had sustaining male relationships, whether unsatisfactory (Mira Slovak) or not, her autobiography mentions twice that her favorite song was “I Can’t Get Started” (201, 203), the lyrics of which she recognized as having deep relevance to her own personal life. During a TV interview show she met James Stewart who was giving up flying due to eyesight problems and “felt a kinship with this great actor-pilot, for her too had lived reality outside the tinsel” (115). Susan could easily have extended that brief sequence showing a female aviator in Hawks’s Ceiling Zero (1936) and made It a central part of a future film had the possibility of a collaboration with that director existed.
Significantly, Susan gained the respect of Jerry Lewis on The Disorderly Orderly and he later specifically requested her to appear in his comeback film Hardly Working (1980) that she did as a favor to him. Since many of Susan’s peers such as Peter Mark Richman, expressed surprise as to her aviation expertise ( she often compartmentalized herself with many friends and colleagues), it is highly possible that the King of Comedy knew about this and her autobiography confirms this (see p.28). George Pappy informed me that Paramount insisted that she did not do any flying while she appeared in this film. Jerry later generously offered to help her with medical bills towards the end of her life when attempts at holistic remedies did not succeed.
Susan Oliver was one of the first females – along with Lee Grant, Lily Tomlin, Kathleen Nolan and others – to graduate from the first AFI Directing School for Women. Yet, as lifelong friend and future director Nancy Malone (remembered as Libby from The Naked City, the series) sympathetically comments, the road was hard for Susan to realize her talents as an accomplished director at a time when opportunities were more limited than now. (However, one female director comments on how stars like Meryl Streep today lament the fact that few women direct but never go so far as to refuse to appear in a film unless there is a woman director!) Malone remarks that Susan wanted to break away from the many stereotyped acting roles and dialogue she was offered and wished for more control over her work. Susan graduated along with these other women who experienced huge disappointments at the lack of opportunities facing them later. However, Susan reshot her first short feature, the humorous satirical western Cowboy-San (1978) with the aid of industry friends Woody Stroke, Will Sampson, and Ted Cassidy who obviously respected her. Possibly due to Alan Alda’s support she later successfully directed a 1982 episode of MASH (1972-1983) but experienced a hell on earth situation the following year on an episode of Trapper John MD (1979-1986) where she faced a hostile crew and Pernell Roberts, described as “a very difficult man,” that led to the end of her directing career in a world where television formulas were rigid and gender bias supreme. As Nancy Malone states, it was “a boy’s club.” With her immense theatrical and teaching experience Gates McFadden was only able to direct one episode of Star Trek-The New Generation while inexperienced males such as Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, and LeVar Burton directed more than one episode. Crews were always ready to help inadequate male directors who were given multiple chances. This was not the case for females such as Susan Oliver whose lack of special effects experience was used to bar her from directing a Star Trek franchise episode while Nancy Malone did. Despite lacking similar special effects experience, she asked the advice of that team without any trouble. Malone probably had the networking skills that her more sensitive friend did not. Had Susan lived into the 90s she could possibly have directed more. Instead, for several reasons including economic ones such as supporting her ailing mother, who pre-deceased her, she ended her career with bad health, poor acting roles, and looking gaunt and anorexic in her final appearance on the mediocre 1988 Freddy’s Nightmares series. Despite this final appearance, she managed to convey unique acting talents though use of her eyes.
Towards the end of his audio-commentary George Pappy laments the fact that Susan still has no star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in that famous Boulevard. She actually turned one down when still alive. Although speculation exists that her reason may have been due to resentment at how Hollywood treated her, others are possible. Like those combat veterans in James Jones’ WWII (1975) and his posthumously published Whistle (1978), who deliberately choose not to wear decorations with the exception of their combat infantry badges, it would be gratifying to think that the actress herself would have preferred future generations to see the best of her work that later became available on DVD, internet streaming, YouTube and elsewhere rather than to have been remembered by a phony award that meant absolutely nothing and has been given to so many undeserving candidates. Pappy comments that Susan “did not appreciate the impact she had” and the many clips in this documentary verify this statement. The best way in which we can remember Susan Oliver is not only by viewing continually this documentary of dedication, a true labor of love, but also by going again to those available examples of her guest star work and honoring not just her memory but her extraordinary qualities of acting, independence, and female resilience. She was a real professional in the Howard Hawks sense of the word, being really “good” in personality and expertise.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor of Film International. His James Jones: The Limits of Eternity will appear later this year from Rowman & Littlefield.
Oliver, Susan (1983) Odyssey: A Daring Transatlantic Journey. New York: Macmillan.
Thompson, John O (1978) “Screen Acting and the Commutation Test.” Screen 19.2: 55-69.