When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
California Dreamin’: My Eternal Affection for Sandra Dee

On a snowy, slushy day in Chicago, gazing out the plate glass window of a Starbucks, I’m thinking of the New Jersey native who embodied all things sunny and casual:  Sandra Dee.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Ms. Dee defined a new kind of natural, sun-soaked innocence that America, and much of the rest of the world, quickly embraced as the radiantly healthy, outdoorsy essence of Southern California living,” as Dave Kehr wrote in her New York Times obituary.  And it’s those Seratonin-type endorphins — like the ones the body generates in reaction to full-spectrum sunlight — that Sandra’s screen presence multiplies in the deepest recesses of my psyche. 

Due to her 1959 creation of the role “Gidget,” it’s easy to freeze her persona eternally as a pre-sexual adolescent.  (An image perpetuated by lame cultural references to her in the musical GREASE.)  Yet, the majority of her work contained deeply sexual references.  The knee-jerk, punchline humor of “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” from that aforementioned musical was not inspired so much by Dee the Actress’ conflicting and naive issues around sexual exploration.  Instead it says a lot about mid-century Hollywood’s own confusion in its handling of emerging sexual topics.  It’s this push/pull morality injected into her work — and projected onto her cinema and private persona — that causes unintentional humor in contemporary viewings.  (To put it in perspective — Dee, according to her son’s memoir, had been both the family breadwinner and her stepfather’s sex toy while still in elementary school.)

Dee’s acting career began when the U.S. entertainment industry was in its own adolescent-like sexual exploration.  Sandra grew up in front of the camera, which captured that sense of discovery, of dawning emotion, of first tender emergence that was infused in her craft, palpable within each line-reading.  She had a good start in developing her dramatic talents due to her first half-dozen films being guided by masterful, legendary directors:  Robert Wise, Vincente Minnelli, Douglas Sirk and the insightful (yet unknown in America) Trümmerfilme director Helmut Käutner. 

Dee's second film, at age 14, was a Vincente Minnelli comedy.

The risible aspects of her work are due more to the ways in which the dialog-crafters of the ‘fifties and early ‘sixties broached previously taboo subjects, couching them in ‘polite’ phrases:  when underaged Sandra used the stilted phrase “house of ill-repute” in front of her mom in A SUMMER PLACE, it sounded less like a punchline and more like an obscenity to the audiences of 1959.  As Lillian Gish personified fragile beauty in physical peril in earlier times, Sandra Dee was the youth on the brink:  at risk of being over her head in the adult world of sex and liquor.  (This pre-adult innocence — so different from her private life — was the sphere where her screen persona flourished; her least credible scenes on film were situations where she was called upon to be wizened and cynical, such as her famous Pirandellian IMITATION OF LIFE line “Oh, Mother, stop acting!!”)

Both American morality and the film industry were in a sea change during the ‘sixties.  Sandra Dee’s career was a mirror to both.  Her 1960 movie COME SEPTEMBER (costarring Rock Hudson, Gina Lollobrigida and future husband Bobby Darin) was the first film screened during an airline fight.  When Universal dropped her contract at the end of 1965, Associated Press reporter Bob Thomas noted she had been the last remaining big-name movie star under contract to any movie studio.  In another sign of the changes in Hollywood, her Industry walk out (an action which according to her son, shot her career in the foot) was when Universal execs reneged on a verbal promise that she would not be cast in that second-rate medium of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies:  a made-for-TV movie.

More culturally significant than the references to her in GREASE is Dee’s potent scene in Delmer Daves’ A SUMMER PLACE in which her cine-mom Constance Ford pushes Sandra into a Christmas tree, inspiring John Waters to appropriate and re-invent the scene in FEMALE TROUBLE where Divine slams her mom into the same holiday icon. 

(Sandra’s tumble into the tree can be seen in the film’s trailer HERE.)

In her last years Sandra Dee came out about her battles with depression and addiction, fueled no doubt by layers of familial and industry abuse in early life.  Yet despite these associations, her name and her face still connote that “healthy, outdoorsy essence” I yearn to experience on a cold, grey day.  Like all great stars, she was more an embodiment than an artist.  And walking over and ordering another latté right now would just be a sorry substitute for what my brain truly desires:  just one minute of her image framed on a screen.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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